Kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang
|Kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang|
|Location||Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States|
|Date||9 June 2017|
|Abduction, rape and first degree murder|
|Perpetrators||Brendt Allen Christensen|
The kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang occurred on June 9, 2017 when Zhang, a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, was abducted by Brendt Allen Christensen, a Champaign resident and former physics graduate student at the university. Christensen lured Zhang into his car at a bus stop on campus with the promise of a ride after she missed a bus, but then took her to his apartment where he raped and murdered her while his wife was out of town for the weekend.
On June 30, 2017, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested and charged Christensen in federal court. Christensen was convicted of one count of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to agents of the FBI, for which he received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on July 18, 2019.
Yingying Zhang around the time of her college graduation
December 21, 1990
|Died||June 9, 2017 (aged 26)|
|Height||5 ft 4 in (1.63 m)|
|Weight||110 lb (50 kg)|
Yingying Zhang (simplified Chinese: 章莹颖; traditional Chinese: 章瑩穎; pinyin: Zhāng Yíngyǐng) (December 21, 1990 – June 9, 2017) was born in Nanping, a small city in Fujian Province in southeast China, to Ronggao Zhang and Lifeng Ye. Zhang has one younger brother, Zhengyang Zhang. She played in a band and had ambitions of becoming a professor in China. In 2013, Zhang graduated from Sun Yat-sen University in the top of her class. In 2016, she graduated from Peking University. Zhang was a visiting scholar in the Chinese Academy of Sciences before travelling to the United States. She arrived in the United States in April 2017 to conduct research on photosynthesis and crop productivity for one year in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, within the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (ACES), at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was considering entering a doctoral program at the University of Illinois. Zhang planned to marry her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, in October 2017.
On the afternoon of June 9, 2017, Zhang was traveling on a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (CUMTD) bus in Urbana, Illinois, to an off-campus apartment complex where she was planning to sign a new apartment lease. She was running late and sent a text message to the leasing agent at 1:39 p.m. to inform them that she would arrive at approximately 2:10 p.m. After riding on one bus, she exited at 1:52 p.m. and tried to transfer to another. However, because she was on the wrong side of the street for boarding, the bus did not stop after she attempted to flag it down. The CUMTD stated it is against company policy to stop for pedestrians on the wrong side of the street, as to do so would encourage them to run into oncoming traffic.
Zhang then walked to another bus stop a few blocks away at the corner of North Goodwin Avenue and West Clark Street, directly in front of the university's PBS radio and television station, WILL. Surveillance video cameras showed that a black Saturn Astra passed by her at 2:00 p.m. as she waited at the bus stop, and then circled back around and stopped where she was waiting at 2:03 p.m. She spoke to the driver for approximately one minute, and then entered the car.
The leasing agent sent a text message to her at approximately 2:38 p.m., but received no reply. As the hours passed, Zhang's friends, aware of her errand and expecting her to return quickly, grew increasingly worried. At 9:24 p.m., an associate professor called police to report her missing.
The University of Illinois Police Department and Urbana Police Department worked with FBI agents to locate Zhang, offering a reward of US$10,000 for information leading to her location. The University's large Chinese student population helped coordinate search efforts on and around campus. On June 17, Zhang's father and a maternal aunt, and her boyfriend arrived in Champaign to confer with authorities and to aid in the search. On June 19, the University of Illinois in conjunction with Champaign County Crime Stoppers, announced a reward of $40,000 for information leading to the arrest of the individual or individuals responsible for the apparent kidnapping of Zhang. This reward is the largest offered in the 31-year history of the Champaign Crime Stoppers organization. On July 14 the reward was increased to $50,000. Zhang's family said they would not leave the country until she is found. On August 19, Zhang's mother and younger brother also flew to the United States.
Several citizens had reported seeing an Asian woman matching Zhang's description in Salem, Illinois on June 16. Zhang's family traveled to Salem to follow possible leads and the FBI investigated the reports, but it was later determined that the woman was not Zhang.
The University announced that they planned to install additional, high-definition, security cameras throughout the campus.
Brendt Allen Christensen
|Born||June 30, 1989|
|Alma mater||University of Wisconsin–Madison|
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
|Spouse(s)||Michelle Zortman (divorced)|
Investigators were unable to discern the license plate number of the vehicle from security camera footage. However, they determined that there were 18 four-door Saturn Astras registered to owners in the Champaign County area. One of these vehicles was registered to Brendt Allen Christensen, a Champaign resident. Christensen, born June 30, 1989, is a former Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in math and physics and graduated with a master's degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2017. Before starting graduate school, he married Michelle Zortman in March 2013.
Investigators interviewed Christensen on June 12, 2017 and inspected his car. When questioned, Christensen reportedly claimed that he did not remember what he was doing at the time of Zhang's disappearance. He later told investigators that he may have been sleeping, or at home playing video games.
On June 14 investigators reviewed the surveillance video footage and observed that the car's sunroof was similar to the one on Christensen's car. They also noted that the car in the video had a cracked hubcap and, upon reinspecting Christensen's car, found that it had a cracked hubcap. They concluded that the car in the footage belonged to Christensen.
On June 15 local police and FBI investigators questioned Christensen and executed a search warrant for his car. The black Saturn Astra was initially towed to a secure bay at the Champaign Police Department, and on June 18 was transported to the FBI Springfield Division's main office in Springfield, Illinois. Investigators noted that the passenger door of his car "appeared to have been cleaned to a more diligent extent than the other vehicle doors", which they said "may be indicative of an attempt or effort to conceal or destroy evidence".
During questioning on June 15, Christensen admitted that he had given an Asian female a ride, but said that he dropped her off after only a few blocks when a wrong turn caused her to panic. Concurrent with this questioning, agents at Christensen's apartment sought and obtained written permission from another occupant of the residence for search and seizure of items at the residence. Agents took possession of computers and a cellphone belonging to Christensen, and subsequently sought and obtained a federal search warrant for a forensic examination of the phone. Law enforcement agencies then placed Christensen under continuous surveillance, beginning on or about June 16.
On June 29, Christensen had attended a memorial walk for Zhang with his girlfriend, Terra Bullis. Bullis cooperated with FBI investigators and agreed to wear a wire, thinking that it would exonerate Christensen if he didn't commit the crime, while she also cared about the missing person (Zhang). An affidavit filed by an FBI agent said that in the audio recording, Christensen told Bullis he had brought Zhang back to his apartment and held her there against her will.
On June 30, the FBI arrested Christensen and charged him with kidnapping under Title 18 U.S.C. Chapter 55, § 1201 of federal law. According to the law, if a kidnapping results in the death of any person, life imprisonment or the death penalty is prescribed. The FBI report noted that in April, before the alleged kidnapping, Christensen used his cellphone to access the sexual fetish website Fetlife, visiting forums such as "Abduction 101". Christensen had no prior criminal record and no record of disciplinary problems at the university.
At a court hearing on July 5, U.S. Magistrate Eric I. Long denied bail for Christensen after hearing submissions from the prosecutor and Christensen's attorneys, Evan and Tom Bruno. Long said that Zhang's still being missing weighed against Christensen, and that Christensen was the last person to see Zhang. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres said that there was no "combination of conditions" where Christensen was not a danger to the community. Freres revealed more details from the investigation not presented in the criminal complaint. He told the court that Christensen had attended a vigil held for Zhang on June 29, where he had described "the characteristics of his ideal victim", and had pointed out those in the crowd who matched them. Additionally, Christensen was recorded saying that Zhang had resisted and fought with him, and he was also recorded threatening someone who then provided incriminating evidence to authorities. Christensen's attorney Evan Bruno argued that he should be released on bail due to his lack of criminal record and his ties to the local community.
On July 12, 2017 a federal grand jury formally indicted Brendt Christensen for kidnapping Yingying Zhang. The indictment alleges that Christensen "willfully and unlawfully seized, confined, inveigled, decoyed, kidnapped, abducted, and carried away" Zhang "and otherwise held her for his own benefit and purpose, and used and caused to be used a means, facility and instrumentality of interstate commerce, namely, a Motorola cellular telephone and a Saturn Astra motor vehicle, in committing and in furtherance of the commission of the offense". Christensen pled "not guilty" at his arraignment on July 20, 2017.
Christensen's trial began in June 2019 with his attorney, George Taseff, admitting in the opening statements that Christensen killed Zhang and he was on "trial for his life" because he could face the death penalty. Evidence was provided that before Christensen abducted Zhang, he had posed as an undercover police officer and attempted to abduct graduate student Emily Hogan. He asked Hogan to get into his car, she refused, and he drove off. Hogan reported this to the police and posted about the incident on social media. After picking up Zhang later that morning and taking her back to his apartment, Christensen choked, raped, and stabbed her in his bedroom before dragging her to his bathroom where he beat her with a baseball bat and decapitated her.
On June 24, 2019, the 12-member jury deliberated for less than two hours before returning its verdict. Christensen was found guilty of one count of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During sentencing deliberations, the jury could not unanimously agree to sentence Christensen to death. As a result, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on July 18, 2019.
Following the trial, prosecutors revealed information about Zhang's remains that Christensen divulged through his attorneys in November 2018 under an immunity agreement. The day after he killed Zhang, Christensen claimed he put Zhang's dismembered body in three separate garbage bags which he then disposed of in the dumpster outside of his apartment. Over the next two days, Christensen claimed he disposed of Zhang's personal belongings in various dumpsters in the Champaign-Urbana area. The dumpster in which Christensen placed Zhang's remains was emptied three days later and the contents taken to a private landfill in Vermilion County, compacted at least twice, spread over an area fifty yards wide, and subsequently buried under thirty feet of garbage. Recovery of Zhang's remains would be difficult and a search for her remains has not begun.
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- Updates on our search for a missing scholar, University of Illinois Police Department updates page