ore than two years after her disappearance and murder, the parents of Chinese scholar Zhang Yingying have been told that their daughter’s body may be in a landfill in central Illinois.
Zhang, 26, went missing on the afternoon of June 9, 2017 from the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 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, a 28-year-old former doctoral student at the university, 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.
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.
The following month, the judge in the case announced that Christensen would be sentenced to life in prison after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on whether he should be sentenced to death.
The decision did not go over well on Chinese social media, where netizens called the American justice system “trash,” as well as among Zhang’s friends and family.
“The result today seemed to encourage people to do crimes. And me, myself, will never agree with that,” Zhang’s boyfriend said at a press conference afterward.
At the presser, Zhang’s family called on Christensen to reveal what he did with Zhang’s body. “If you have any humanity left in your soul, please end our torment,” her father said. “Please let us bring Yingying home.”
On Saturday, Steve Beckett, a lawyer representing Zhang’s family, revealed that Zhang’s body may be in a landfill in nearby Vermilion county.
According to Beckett, this information came from Christensen’s team of lawyers as they were trying to work out a plea deal with the prosecution. However, the lawyers had explained that Christensen could not guarantee the remains would be found, leading to the deal breaking down.