The Murder of Yingying Zhang

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Photo by Markus Spiske via Magedeleine

On June 9, 2017, Yingying Zhang was a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with hopes of becoming a professor. She hoped to work hard to help support her family in China.

This would all change that fateful day, when a man approached her as she waited for the bus.

An Accomplished Life

Yingying was born December 21, 1990, in Nanping, China. She attended several educational institutions and seemingly had a lot going for her. In 2013, she graduated at the top of her class from Sun Yat-sen University. Three years later, she graduated from Peking University.

In April of 2017, Yingying traveled to the United States. She planned to study agricultural science for a year at the University of Illinois with hopes of entering a doctoral program.

In addition to the many academic ventures going on in her life, Yingying also had time to develop a romance. She and her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, planned to marry in October that year.

Yingying was excited on June 9th because she intended to sign a lease for a new off-campus apartment. It was an exciting time in her life, but unfortunately she was running late. She texted her leasing agent at 1:39 p.m. to tell her she would be there at 2:10 p.m.

Yingying was able to get on her first bus, but she missed her second bus and had to walk a few blocks.

Later, investigators would view camera footage in which a black Saturn Astra passed Yingying at about 2 p.m., circled back, and stopped in front of her. At 2:03 p.m., Yingying got in the vehicle.

She was never seen alive again.

A Fruitless Search

At 2:38 p.m., Yingying’s leasing agent sent another text. Nobody responded. As the night approached, her friends grew worried. An associate professor reporter her missing on the phone.

A search party followed, with city police, university police, and the FBI working together. Yingying’s boyfriend and family arrived about a week later to search for their loved one.

The cameras that caught the Astra was not able to capture the license plate, but investigators could determine it was a four-door. Only 18 people appeared to own Saturn Astras in Champaign County.

A Hidden Predator

Brendt Allen Christensen, a former grad student in the physics department, was the registered owner of a Saturn Astra. Investigators contacted him for an interview on June 12, 2017, and inspected his car.

According to Brendt, his wife was out of town for the weekend. He could not remember what he’d spent the weekend doing, but he noted it was most likely playing video games or sleeping. But when investigators review the footage again and saw that vehicle had a similar sunroof and crack on the hubcap, they realized they had found their man.

On June 15, local police and FBI agents questioned Brendt again and searched his car. Later, Christensen attended a memorial walk for Yingying with his girlfriend (he and his wife had an open relationship). She would go on to cooperate with investigators and even wear a wire — she thought she could have her boyfriend exonerated if no evidence came to light.

Instead, he admitted to holding Yingying against her will. He bragged that she’d been his 13th victim, though this is most definitely not the case.

Brendt had lured Yingying into his car as she waited at a bus stop near campus. He apparently offered her a lift. Instead, he brutally attacked and murdered her.

On June 30, 2017, Brendt was arrested on his birthday by the FBI.

A Quick Trial

During his trial, Brendt’s defense attorney openly admitted that Brendt had killed Yingying. Brendt was facing the death penalty, and the attorney’s goal was to fight allegations of premeditation so his client could avoid the death penalty.

Evidence that came to light also showed that the defendant had previously tried to abduct another student. Authorities also found a large bloodstain with Yingying’s DNA on Brendt’s mattress. He’d told his wife the blood came from a nosebleed.

He would ultimately be convicted of one count of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to the FBI. The jury took only two hours to arrive at this decision. Brendt received a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole in July 2019.

Unfortunately, Yingying’s body has not been found. Brendt was not able to provide information that would lead authorities to its location.

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