Brendt Christensen is a former Ph.D. student researcher from Champaign who was convicted by a federal jury of kidnapping in the death of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old University of Illinois visiting scholar from China whose mysterious disappearance galvanized the community. Christensen was found guilty on June 24, 2019, of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of lying to investigators.
The conviction comes more than two years after Christensen was charged. The trial was essentially a fait accompli. Christensen’s attorney said during her opening statement that her client had killed Zhang, but disputed some of the evidence against him. She argued he had mental health issues and her case was essentially to set up the next phase of the trial, Christensen’s sentencing. The same jury who convicted him later split on the death penalty. Christen is serving a life prison term. Illinois has outlawed the death penalty, but the case was tried in federal court.
Zhang’s body has not been found.
The affidavit filed after Christensen’s June 2017 arrest provides chilling details; it says that authorities examined Christensen’s phone and alleges that he accessed a website entitled “Abduction 101” and sub-threads that were called things like “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.” He had also worked as a Physics class teaching assistant.
It was also revealed that Christensen was photographed attending a rally for the victim. Prosecutor Eugene Miller alleged that Zhang’s blood was found on a bat that Christensen used to strike Zhang, as well as in other places in his apartment, according to WTTW-TV. He’s also accused of stabbing and choking her and comparing himself to Ted Bundy. WGN-TV reported that he raped and beheaded Zhang, and implied he had 12 other victims, but this was never proven. He also claimed he choked Zhang for 10 minutes as she fought for her life.
One student who had Christensen as a TA wrote on Reddit, “I had him 3 years ago for physics 212 TA. He seemed like a normal physics grad student. Completely normal, perhaps a bit awkward but with no unusual vibes.”
According to the University of Illinois police, Zhang, a graduate student from China, disappeared on June 9, 2017. She was supposed to check out an apartment to lease and never showed up. Video showed her at an Urbana, Illinois, bus stop getting into a black Saturn vehicle, and, after that, she vanished without a trace. Her disappearance was big news in China as well as the United States as the Urbana-Champaign community mobilized to find the promising young environmental engineer who was researching crop production.
Zhang was remembered as intelligent and extroverted. “She played guitar and sang in a band called ‘Cute Horse’ in China. One of her favorite songs was ‘The Rose,’ a hit in 1980 for American singer Bette Midler,” reported The Chicago Tribune.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Authorities Accused Christensen of Visiting an ‘Abduction 101’ Fetish Site Thread
It’s clear from the affidavit that authorities thought they had their man, but they needed more evidence to seek an arrest, especially because they did not know where Zhang’s body was.
The FBI placed Christensen under surveillance and monitored his conversations. That recording provided them with the key piece of evidence outlined in the affidavit.
A prosecutor told the court on July 5, 2017, that Christensen was recorded at a rally for Zhang by authorities and “explained the characteristics of his ideal victim” and, according to CNN, “pointed out those in the crowd who matched them at a vigil he attended for the missing woman.” The person helping authorities record Christensen was not identified. However, the prosecutor also alleged in court that Christensen threatened a person on a recording who provided incriminating information against him, CNN reported. In one recording, Christensen is accused of saying that “Zhang fought him, and that he took her back to his apartment and held her there against her will last month,” CNN reported. The judge has denied bail for Christensen.
On June 29, 2017, “while Christensen was under law enforcement surveillance, agents overheard him explaining that he kidnapped Zhang. Based on this, and other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter, law enforcement agents believe that Ms. Zhang is no longer alive,” the affidavit contends. It doesn’t reveal whom Christensen was allegedly speaking with at the time.
That alleged admission built on previous statements that Christensen made to the FBI in which he allegedly confessed that Zhang had been in his car, although he claimed she left it voluntarily, the affidavit says.
On June 15, 2017, Christensen was interviewed at the FBI’s Champaign office. According to the affidavit, authorities allege that he “admitted to driving around the UI campus when he observed an Asian female with a backpack standing at a corner appearing distressed. Christensen claimed that he drove up to the Asian female, who relayed she was late to an appointment. Christensen stated that he offered the Asian female a ride. The female entered his vehicle and attempted to show Christensen where she needed to go through her cell phone map app.”
Christensen allegedly claimed that “he believed he made a wrong turn because the female became panicked.” He claimed that he then let the female out of the vehicle in a residential area a few blocks away from where he picked her up.
However, on June 29, 2017, Christensen “was captured on audio recording while under law enforcement surveillance explaining how he kidnapped” Zhang. Christensen stated that he brought Zhang “back to his apartment, and otherwise held her in his apartment against her will,” the affidavit alleges.
The affidavit does not explain how authorities think Zhang died; it says authorities think she is no longer alive, but her body is still missing.
Authorities searched Christensen’s mobile device and found something disturbing, the affidavit alleges.
The affidavit alleges that Christensen’s phone accessed the abduction threads on a site called FetLife. FetLife’s home page reads, “FetLife is the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community. Like Facebook, but run by kinksters like you and me. We think it is more fun that way. Don’t you?”
Authorities claim his mobile phone was used to access a thread entitled “Abduction 101.”
The thread has more than 3,000 members. The other thread authorities accuse Christensen of visiting is entitled “planning a kidnapping” and contains a post from someone else that reads, “I’m a lucky sub. I actually have a friend who is going to kidnap me. She also has 3 helpers. The catch is we’ve never done this before. Suggestions thoughts and ideas for the actual abduction are most welcome. We need help lol.”
Social media users have noted that a man in the crowd at a walk for Zhang after she was reported missing bears a resemblance to Christensen. The News Gazette reported that Christensen attended a “walk held by in support of Ms. Zhang outside the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts even as he was under surveillance by police.” In some photos from the rally, he stands next to an unidentified woman.
He’s talking about the photo on the left here:
This photo also circulated on social media:
On Facebook, Christensen, who was known to dress in black, had liked the book American Psycho and showed an interest in gaming and anime.
2. Christensen Is Accused of Driving the Vehicle That Zhang Was Seen Getting Into & That Gave Police Their Big Break
Early on in the case, police released information about a black Saturn Astra vehicle that video captured Zhang getting into before she vanished. Then, they told the public they had identified the driver while saying little more. Police said they combed through motor vehicle records of all people who own such a vehicle in the city. This, they now say, led them to Christensen as a suspect.
The affidavit filed in support of the complaint alleges that on June 9, 2017, “Christensen was driving the black Saturn Astra which was observed on security camera video as it stopped next to Zhang at the corner of W. Clark St. and N. Goodwin Ave., at approximately 2:00 p.m. Zhang is observed on video entering the front passenger side of the vehicle. The vehicle then pulled away and proceeded northbound on N. Goodwin Ave.”
The affidavit provides a detailed accounting of the last moments Zhang is seen.
Police said that, on June 9, 2017, Zhang went to UI’s Turner Hall where she conducts research and then returned to her apartment for lunch. At 1:39 p.m., she sent a text message from her cell phone to a manager of a different apartment complex in Urbana, Illinois, where she intended to sign a lease. She said she was running behind, but would arrive about 2:10 p.m.
At 1:35 p.m., she was observed on video boarding a public bus. She exited the bus and tried to flag down another one, but it continued past her without stopping. Zhang was observed on video walking to an intersection and standing at a bus stop. At 2 p.m., a black Saturn Astra, driven, police say, by Christensen was observed on video passing Zhang at the bus stop and then circling back to her location, according to the affidavit.
She was observed speaking with the driver through the passenger window for about one minute, before entering the car. At 2:38 p.m,, the apartment manager sent Zhang a text message and received no response.
By 9:24 p.m., an associate professor reported that Zhang was missing. An officer met with the professor and other colleagues of Zhang, who said they had not been able to contact her for several hours. She had previously told people she was going to sign an apartment lease and would return shortly after. Calls to her cell phone went unanswered. Police searched her apartment and found nothing.
Then came the break in the case: The Saturn.
Authorities narrowed their search down to 18 four-door Saturn Astra vehicles registered in Champaign County and interviewed the owners. On June 12, 2017, they went to the 2500 block of W. Springfield Ave. in Champaign and saw the car registered to Christensen. Authorities interviewed Christensen who allegedly told authorities that, between 2 and 3 p.m. on June 9, 2017, the day that Zhang disappeared, he “could not initially recall his whereabouts. He later advised, however, he must have been either sleeping or he was playing video games at his residence all day.” He admitted the car belonged to him, the affidavit said.
Later, in the other interview, authorities extracted an admission from Christensen that Zhang had been in his car, prompting the surveillance, according to the affidavit.
Police noticed that the Saturn in video footage had a sunroof and cracked front passenger hubcap, as did Christensen’s car, alleged the affidavit.
Since Zhang was last seen in the video entering the car, said the news release issued by authorities, “the FBI, the University of Illinois Police Department and the Illinois State Police and local law enforcement have worked around the clock to locate Ms. Zhang and to investigate her disappearance.”
Police previously said they are investigating “reports of a black sedan whose driver poses as an undercover police officer to lure people into the car.” That stems from a Champaign woman’s Facebook post that a man in a black Sedan had tried unsuccessfully to get her inside his car while she was walking down the street on the same day that Zhang disappeared.
3. Christensen Was a Graduate Student Researcher Until May & a Former TA Who Was Described as ‘Lenient’ & ‘Normal’
Both Christensen and Zhang were graduate-level scholars.
According to his LinkedIn page, Christensen is a Ph.D. Student Researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he has worked there for 3 years and 7 months. That’s the same university where Zhang was a visiting scholar.
Christensen wrote on LinkedIn: “I am a Ph.D. candidate in experimental condensed matter physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, I fabricate nanoscale-level devices and perform electrical measurements on them in order to discover new things about mesoscopic physics. These measurements are done with a variety of devices; most notably probe stations and cryogenic systems. Along the way, I utilize an assortment of programs and skills, such as Python, LabVIEW, electron-beam lithography, atomic force microscopy, and much more.”
A professor and graduate adviser told ABC News that he saw no red flags with Christensen. Professor Lance Cooper told ABC News that Brendt Christensen “was accepted into the highly competitive physics program in 2013. The Champaign, Illinois, man intended to get his Ph.D., but told Cooper in 2016 he’d decided not to do so. He continued teaching as a graduate assistant and earned his master’s degree in mid-May.” A university spokesperson told ABC News that Christensen’s “affiliation” with the university ended in May when he received that degree.
Zhang was an international scholar who focused her research in the areas of photosynthesis and crop productivity. She had only arrived at the University of Illinois in April 2017. According to CNN, Zhang “had a year-long position at the university’s department of nature resources and environmental sciences.”
She graduated from “Beijing’s prestigious Peking University last year with a master’s degree in environmental engineering,” CNN reported.
“She was about six weeks into her appointment as a scholar in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences when she disappeared,” said University of Illinois spokeswoman Robin Kaler to the cable news network.
Christensen described his current research as: “Transport in thin flakes of Molybdenum Disulfide (MoS2)” and “Investigating topological insulators/superconductors, such as probing the pairing symmetry of Bismuth Selenide (Bi2Se3).”
Fabrication techniques used included “Mechanical exfoliation of thin flakes” and “CVD (chemical vapor deposition) oven cleaning of substrates.”
He was previously a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, where he wrote that he “supervised and guided discussion sections of ~20 students at a time while they worked through physics problems, oversaw and graded quizzes, and proctored exams.” He added on LinkedIn that he was “ranked excellent teaching assistant every single semester I taught (Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2015).”
A former student expressed shock on Reddit, writing, “This dude was my physics discussion TA last semester holy f*ck.” Another Reddit user asked whether the student had gotten any “weird vibes.”
“To be honest not at all. He was chill. Super smart though. He was lenient and very helpful. Super weird,” the former student wrote on the thread. A former student also wrote, “Had him as a TA last semester he seemed somewhat chill. He was lenient and didn’t seem too weird. He was smart as f*ck though. Seemed like a regular smart a*s dude. Lot of the time the psychos seem normal though. So f*cking weird rn.”
Coursicle lists two of his recent courses as PHYS 211 – University Physics: Mechanics and PHYS 100 – Thinking About Physics, and says he averaged 100 students a semester.
Another former student wrote on Reddit, “I had him for physics 212. Honestly he seemed like a really easy going and normal guy. I would never have guessed.” Yet another former student wrote, “He came across as very smart and affable. Was the only TA up until senior year that I ever addressed by name.”
Another Reddit user wrote of the allegations: “What’s really unsettling me though is that he’s been here. Dude was here for two? three? years already, studying and getting his PHD. He had friends. He had a career. He’s been in the community. I get that there are truly sick people out there, but its just so unsettling to think we had this ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.”
4. Christensen Is a Graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison & Was Married but Allegedly on a Dating Website
Christensen’s LinkedIn page says that he graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in Physics in 2013, and he was in the Physics club at that school.
He served as a research assistant at UW-Madison for a year in 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland, he wrote on LinkedIn, where he “worked for Matthew Herndon analyzing data created at the CMS Experiment in the Large Hadron Collider.”
On Facebook, Christensen wrote that he was from Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
Here’s his high school yearbook photo:
A family obit from 2013 indicated that Christensen was married. Heavy has blurred out the face of Christensen’s wife at the request of a relative who described her as being in a stressful state and because there is no indication or claim that she had any involvement in his alleged crimes.
Christensen had a profile on the OKCupid dating site, according to The News Gazette, which said his now-deleted profile read, that he was “married and in an open relationship” and read, “I’m Brendt. Grad student at UIUC. I’m pretty chill and easy going … it’s pretty much impossible to make me mad. I want to experience everything and test my limits… I also work out a ton but don’t mind if you don’t. Fitness has been a passion of mine since junior high.”
On Tinder, he said he was in an open relationship.
5. Zhang’s Father Came From China to Try to Find Her & the Community Rallied Around Him
Zhang’s disappearance left many in her family and also in the greater university community heartbroken.
Zhang’s father, Zhang Ronggao, “traveled from Nanping, China, to do what he could to help find his daughter,” reported CNN. He found a lot of support when he got there. The Chicago Tribune described Zhang’s father as a “working-class factory driver.”
A GoFundMe campaign to help Zhang’s family with living expenses while the search continues has raised almost $100,000.
“We realize that this has been a source of anxiety for our entire campus community,” Police Chief Jeff Christensen wrote before the arrest. “Our concern for Yingying grows with each day that passes, and we have personally witnessed the pain this uncertain time has created for her family members, friends and colleagues. While we cannot share specific details on the investigation in order to maintain its integrity and direction, we continue to make progress in our search, and we will not give up until we find her.”
The chancellor released a statement after news of the arrest broke on June 30, 2017.
“The entire campus community is saddened by this news and our hearts are with the family of Yingying Zhang tonight,” UI Chancellor Robert Jones said. “This is a senseless and devastating loss of a promising young woman and a member of our community. There is nothing we can do to ease the sadness or grief for her family and friends, but we can and we will come together to support them in any way we can in these difficult days ahead.”
According to The Chicago Sun-Times, “Some 5,600 Chinese enrolled at U of I, more than at any U.S. college, according to government data.”
The chancellor wrote in the statement, “It is with great sorrow that I must tell you that the FBI announced this evening that they believe Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar to our campus who disappeared three weeks ago, is no longer alive. They have made an arrest and now it is time for us as a university community to come together in support of her family and friends in this difficult time of loss.”