Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar to the University of Illinois, mysteriously vanished, but Brendt Christensen, a PhD student researcher at the university, was convicted of murdering Zhang.
Christensen’s attorney made the stunning admission during opening statements in Christensen’s trial. “Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang,” federal defender George Taseff said, according to WTTF-TV. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang.”
Authorities long ago said in an affidavit that they believe Zhang is dead. The jury sentenced Christensen to life in prison after splitting on the death penalty. “Now that the trial is over, and the jury has made its decision, we ask the defendant to unconditionally tell us what he knows about Yingying’s location,” her father, Ronggao Zhang, implored in Chinese, according to CNN. “If you have any humanity left in your soul, please help end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home.”
According to the University of Illinois police, Zhang, a graduate student from China, disappeared on June 9, 2017.
Police said from the start that it was possible Zhang was in danger and was kidnapped, but they initially explored multiple scenarios for her disappearance. “We are deeply concerned anytime someone cannot be contacted for an extended period of time. While we are exploring a number of possible scenarios which may have contributed to this incident, we are treating this as a very urgent matter,” police reported in an update.
However, on June 27, police wrote: “The FBI has announced that investigators located the black Saturn Astra used in the abduction of Yingying Zhang.” They later determined that the vehicle belonged to Christensen.
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.
Zhang was a visiting scholar at the Urbana-Champaign campus, and her disappearance is big news in China, which sends many students overseas to study in the United States.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Zhang Vanished After Riding a Public Bus & Speaking to the Driver of a Black Saturn
Zhang was last seen on an Urbana street.
According to the University of Illinois Police Department, “Yingying Zhang boarded an MTD Teal line bus at the south shelter at Orchard Downs at 1:35 p.m. on Friday, June 9. She exited the bus at Springfield and Mathews avenues in Urbana at 1:52 p.m. Friday.” She was then seen speaking to the driver of a black Saturn vehicle. You can watch that video below.
She has never been seen again.
At the time, police wrote, “she was wearing a charcoal gray hat with a white logo on the front. She has shoulder length brown hair, glasses, and a white/pink flannel print long sleeve shirt, white undershirt, jeans, white shoes, and a navy backpack.”
After identifying him as the driver of the vehicle, the FBI placed Christensen under surveillance and monitored his conversations. That recording provided them with the key piece of evidence outlined in the affidavit.
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,” an affidavit contends. It doesn’t reveal whom Christensen was allegedly speaking with at the time.
According to Daily Beast, blood was found in his apartment and on a baseball bat, and prosecutors said he compared himself to Ted Bundy.
2. Police Released Video of Zhang Entering the Saturn & Say They’ve Now Recovered It
The above video, University of Illinois police say, shows the B-4 parking garage on North Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, just after 2 p.m. Friday, June 9, the day that Zhang disappeared.
“Ms. Zhang is seen standing on the east side of Goodwin Avenue as a black Saturn Astra (unknown year) pulls up beside her,” police wrote on YouTube. According to CNN, “The FBI says the vehicle appeared to be driven by a white male who circled the area before making contact with Zhang.”
“She and the driver speak for some time before she enters the vehicle, which then continues north on Goodwin Avenue. The very last clip of the video is a closer view of the vehicle, just before picking up Ms. Zhang,” police wrote.
Police said they have “used vehicle records to identify a list of people who drive that make and model vehicle, and we’re speaking to people who drive that kind of vehicle.” On June 27, police announced that they had located the vehicle. However, they have not provided other details about it or the driver.
Police described the extensive investigative efforts employed to find Zhang and said they are investigating “reports of a black sedan whose driver poses as an undercover police officer to lure people into the car.”
“We are enlisting every available resource to help find Ms. Zhang. Investigators have spoken with people who know her, and we are searching security camera footage, local hospitals, working with rideshare programs like Uber and Lyft, and checking other records,” police wrote. “Investigators have also looked into reports of a black vehicle whose driver invited other young women into the car. Although we cannot release many specific details of our investigation, we are exploring a number of routes which we hope may help us find Ms. Zhang.”
In the affidavit, authorities gave more details. 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.”
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.
3. The FBI Has Made the Case a ‘Top Priority’ Nationwide
According to University of Illinois police, FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jon Holloway “expressed that the FBI has made this case a top priority nationwide. He said he has access to the full resources of the FBI, and more agents are working this one case than typically work the Springfield division’s entire 84-county region.”
Zhang’s family, working with Champaign County Crime Stoppers, is offering a reward of up to $40,000 for information leading to an arrest in the disappearance of Yingying Zhang. In addition, the FBI is offering a $10,000 reward in the case.
“We realize that this has been a source of anxiety for our entire campus community,” Police Chief Jeff Christensen wrote. “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.”
4. Zhang Has a Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering
Zhang had come to Illinois from China.
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.
5. Zhang’s Father Arrived From China to Look for Her & a Charity Campaign Is Raising Money for the Family’s Expenses
Zhang’s father, Zhang Ronggao, “traveled from Nanping, China, to do what he could to help find his daughter,” reported CNN.
A GoFundMe campaign to help Zhang’s family with living expenses while the search continues has raised almost $100,000.
Police ask people with information about Zhang’s disappearance to call 911 or the University of Illinois Police Department at 217-333-1216. Non-emergency information may be emailed to email@example.com. People can also share information anonymously by contacting Champaign County Crime Stoppers at 373tips.com, calling 217-373-TIPS (8477) or by downloading the P3 Tips mobile app (for iOS or Android).