The killer kidnapped his victim, then raped, choked, stabbed, beat her with a baseball bat and decapitated her.
Afterward, according to information shared with his attorneys and relayed to the victim’s family after his conviction and sentencing for the 2017 murder, Brendt Christensen placed cut-up pieces of 26-year-old Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang‘s body into three trash bags, which he tossed into a dumpster behind his apartment in Champaign, Illinois.
From there, the dumpster’s contents were collected and compacted before winding up in a landfill under additional layers of trash
Desperate to retrieve Zhang’s remains for proper burial even as Christensen, 30, kept mum throughout his trial last month about what he did with her body, the victim’s family now knows those remains “could be smaller than a cellphone,” Zhang family attorney Steve Beckett said at a news conference Wednesday, reports WTTW.
“It is evident that any attempt to recover Yingying’s remains would be complicated and expensive, would require government oversight and the cooperation of the landfill owners, and would have no certainty of success,” said Beckett.
The family only learned details about the remains on July 25, after Christensen’s trial ended and prosecutors shared information gleaned from Christensen’s defense attorneys that previously had been kept secret under a prosecution immunity agreement, said Becklett, reports The News-Gazette.
“This information came from the defense lawyers, and that information indicated that the remains, as it traced down, could be found in a landfill in Vermilion County,” Beckett said last week, according to the newspaper.
Macon County Sheriff’s Department
Responding to Christensen’s claims, Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, said at the Wednesday news conference through a translator, “If what that man said is true, it further confirms that he is a heartless and evil person,” according to the outlet.
“We condemn his brutal and malicious actions and we hope that he suffers the rest of his life as he made Yingying suffer in the final moments of her life,” he said.
“We now understand that finding (Yingying) may be impossible,” he said.
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Christensen was sentenced July 18 to life in prison without the possibility of parole for Zhang’s 2017 kidnapping and murder by federal Judge James Shadid, who termed the crimes an “inexplicable act of violence,” reports the Chicago Tribune.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Zhang arrived in the U.S. from China as a visiting scholar in April 2017 to do post-graduate research at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana campus. She had texted to say she was running late but on her way to an appointment to sign an apartment lease when she vanished on June 9, 2017.
Colleagues who could not reach her reported Zhang missing that same day.
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Security camera video later showed Zhang accepting a ride from a black Saturn Astra traced to Christensen, a former physics Ph.D. candidate. A female witness who subsequently identified Christensen said that earlier in the day, he’d posed as a police officer and asked her to get into his car to answer questions. That woman had refused and alerted police.
It later was alleged that Christensen had conducted searches about abduction fantasies on a fetish website, according to a criminal complaint obtained by PEOPLE.
Police questioned Christensen and placed him under surveillance. His arrest on June 30 came one day after he attended a walk to raise awareness about the search for Zhang — and confessed in a recording made by his then-girlfriend that he had killed her, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Christensen told his own attorneys that on June 10, the day after he kidnapped and murdered Zhang, he placed her dismembered remains in the trash outside his apartment to be hauled off during regular trash collection three days later.
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Beckett and another Zhang family attorney, Zhidong Wang, said at the news conference that they learned those dumpster contents were hauled to a private landfill in Danville and compacted at least twice. They said the likely dumping area is about 50 yards wide and topped with at least 30 feet of garbage.
Despite such challenges, federal investigators have not given up the idea of searching for the remains, even though investigators “described for us that at this stage, with decomposition and then compaction, the size of the remains could be smaller than a cellphone,” said Beckett, reports WTTW.
Christensen, who faced the death penalty, had offered to say what he’d done with the body in exchange for a plea deal to save his life, according to WTTW.
But prosecutors said no. His attorneys again offered up the information, but on the condition that prosecutors wouldn’t use it against Christensen at his trial, resulting in the immunity agreement that kept Zhang’s family in the dark until recently.
‘Christensen lied so many times,’ said Wang, the Zhang family attorney, reports WTTW. “We do not believe his attorneys had any reason to lie to the prosecution’s team. But at the same time, no one can say for sure Christensen told his attorneys the truth.’
This week the university announced the creation of an endowment fund in Zhang’s name, Yingying’s Fund, to “support international students in moments of crisis.”
“She planned to study at the University of Illinois and pursue her dream of becoming a professor in China,” according to the announcement, which said Zhang was conducting her research in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. “Yingying loved her family and her fiancée Xiaolin Hou. Her family wanted to create a fund to help international students in emergencies and times of great struggles.”
“The Zhangs, cherished members of our own Illinois family, are going through one of the most challenging points in their lives, and yet they are still thinking of others,” university Chancellor Robert Jones said in a statement. “Their gift will make an enormous impact when these students and their families need it most.”