In 2017, a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign named Yingying Zhang was abducted and never seen again. A search went on for weeks and in that time, a former University of Illinois Ph.D. student named Brendt Christensen became the primary suspect. Ahead of the 20/20 episode about the case, airing Friday, June 12, here’s what you need to know about how Christensen was caught and where he is now.
Yingying Zhang Disappeared June 9, 2017
On June 9, 2017, Zhang, who was in the United States to study at the University of Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences for a year, missed her bus in an attempt to travel to an off-campus apartment complex where she was supposed to sign a new lease. Surveillance footage saw a black Saturn Astra approach her while she waited for another bus; Zhang spoke with the driver for roughly one minute and then got into the car. She was never seen again.
A search got underway once several students and a professor contacted authorities about not being able to reach Zhang. Over the next few days, authorities determined that the Saturn Astra in the surveillance video belonged to former University of Illinois Ph.D. student Brendt Christensen, who still lived in the Champaign-Urbana area.
Christensen was put under constant surveillance and eventually arrested in Zhang’s disappearance. Over the course of the investigation, Christensen admitted to giving an Asian woman a ride but said that she became agitated and left his vehicle. Investigators didn’t believe his version of events and continued to investigate him, eventually finding that he had recently visited a section of a fetish website called “Abduction 101.” At the time of Christensen’s arrest, court documents said that investigators believed Zhang to be dead, but they did not specify what led them to this conclusion, according to the Washington Post.
It later came to light that the FBI enlisted Christensen’s girlfriend Terra Bullis to wear a wire and get him to talk about what happened to Zhang. Bullis testified at the trial that she agreed to help because she needed to know if Christensen had actually done what he was being investigated for, plus she was concerned for the missing student.
According to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Bullis recorded nine conversations with Christensen prior to his arrest on June 30, 2017. The most damning conversation came at the campus vigil for Zhang where Christensen bragged to Bullis about choking Zhang, raping her, hitting her with a baseball bat, stabbing her, and decapitating her.
He also drunkenly confessed to Bullis about idolizing Ted Bundy and that Zhang was his 13th victim, a claim investigators eventually felt had no merit — though they did uncover that Christensen had previously attempted to abduct another woman, a graduate student named Emily Hogan, who had refused to get in his car.
An FBI biologist named Amanda Bakker also testified at the trial about the blood and DNA she found in Christensen’s apartment that came back with extremely high “likelihood ratios” that it belonged to Zhang.
Christensen Was Found Guilty of Kidnapping Resulting in Death
In June 2019, Christensen was found guilty of one count of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to the FBI. The jury deliberated for less than two hours.
“On behalf of Yingying, our beloved daughter, and for my wife, my son and myself, I thank the jury for this step towards justice,” said Ronggao Zhang, Yingying’s father, in a prepared statement (via NBC affiliate WAND 17). “We thank the prosecutors, the University of Illinois police, the FBI, and all who helped in the investigation and trial of this case.”
In July 2019, Christensen was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Following the sentencing, the Zhang family attorney told a Chicago CBS affiliate that information provided by federal prosecutors indicated that Zhang’s body was disposed of by Christensen in three different garbage bags that were thrown in a dumpster. Further investigation showed that the dumpster was emptied three days later and taken to a private landfill where the contents were compacted at least twice and have since likely been covered by at least 30 feet of other landfill contents, which means finding any sort of remains would be next to impossible.
20/20 airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.