rendt Christensen, a former doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release for the kidnapping and killing of Zhang Yingying, a visiting Chinese scholar at the university.
Zhang, 26, disappeared on the afternoon of June 9, 2017 from the university’s campus. After telling friends that she was going to sign a lease on an apartment, she was seen on surveillance camera entering a black Saturn Astra near a bus stop. She was not seen again.
The FBI later tracked the vehicle to Brendt Christensen, who was 28 at the time, placing him under surveillance.
At first, Christensen told the FBI that on the day of Zhang’s disappearance he was inside his apartment all day, sleeping and playing video games. However, a few days later, he changed his story, admitting that while driving his car on campus he had picked up an Asian woman who said she was late for an appointment, but claiming that the woman had quickly jumped out of his vehicle inside a residential area after he made a wrong turn.
While he was under surveillance, police heard Christensen say on an audio recording that he had kidnapped Zhang and held her in his apartment against her will. When they later checked his phone, they found searches to a forum called “Abduction 101” with visits to subthreads titled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “Planning a kidnapping.”
Before being arrested, Christensen was spotted attending a vigil for Zhang at the university campus.
During his trial, Christensen’s former girlfriend testified that at that vigil, he told her that he was the one who had killed Zhang.
The girlfriend then agreed to wear a wire for the FBI, gathering recordings in which Christensen describes sexually assaulting Zhang despite her “valiant” efforts to fight back.
Christensen managed to trick Zhang into his car by posing as an undercover cop, a trap he had tried earlier the same day on another young woman who refused to get into his vehicle.
Inside his room, Christensen beat Zhang to death with a baseball bat before decapitating her, prosecutors said. Zhang’s body has not been found.
At his trial, Christensen’s lawyers acknowledged that he had killed Zhang, but disputed the allegations of premeditation and torture in an attempt to save their client from facing the death penalty.
In June, the jury took less than two hours to find Christensen guilty of all counts: kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of lying to investigators.
On Thursday, the judge in the case announced that Christensen would be sentenced to life after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether he should be sentenced to death.
The decision has not gone over well on Chinese social media where netizens are calling the American justice system “trash.”
“Because the 12 jury members could not agree on the death penalty? Some of those 12 people are also evil,” reads one comment with more than 64,000 likes.
Meanwhile, Zhang’s friends and family were saddened and angered by the verdict. At a press conference afterward, Hou Xiaolin, Zhang Yingying’s boyfriend, declared: “The result today seemed to encourage people to do crimes. And me, myself, will never agree with that.”
“The result today seemed to encourage people to do crimes. And me, myself, will never agree with that,” said Hou Xiaolin, Zhang Yingying's boyfriend. pic.twitter.com/Xi9x8AUBji
— China Daily (@ChinaDaily) July 19, 2019