The federal death penalty trial for the murder of University of Illinois student Zhang Yingying began on June 12, when it was revealed in opening statements that her alleged killer, Brendt Christensen, has an obsession with serial killers — specifically, Ted Bundy.
Yingying came to Urbana, IL, from China to complete her doctoral studies with the dream of becoming a professor. She was last seen in 2017, getting into Christensen’s car. Her body was never found. It was a mix of surveillance footage, online search histories, and incriminating statements recorded by the FBI with the help of Christensen’s girlfriend that led to his arrest. In the recordings, Christensen described in detail how he killed Yingying and claimed no one would ever be able to find her body. Christensen’s former girlfriend has yet to take the stand, but she is expected to be a star witness for the prosecution.
In one of the recordings, taken while Christensen and his then-girlfriend took part in a memorial walk for Yingying in June 2017, Christensen claimed Yingying was his 13th victim and that the last serial killer “at his level was Ted Bundy,” assistant U.S. attorney Eugene Miller said. So far, there has been no evidence linking Christensen to other disappearances or murders.
When he was first taken in and questioned, Christensen pleaded not guilty to all charges, which include kidnapping resulting in death. He also entered a not guilty plea to the federal judge before the trial began. However, before testimony was heard during the trial, defense attorney George Taseff stated Christensen had, in fact, killed Yingying. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang, and nothing we say or do during this phase of the trial is intended to sidestep or deny that Brendt Christensen was responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang,” Taseff said.
Prosecutors claim Christensen lured Yingying into his car before abducting her and later raping and beheading her in his home. Many of her family members were present at the trial. According to South China Morning Post, Christensen had researched how to abduct someone online before purchasing a large duffle bag.
Should Christensen be convicted, a second sentencing phase would follow, during which jurors would decide if he should be given the death penalty. He could still be convicted of kidnapping and murdering Yingying and be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Though capital punishment was abolished in the state of Illinois in 2011, it is still a possibility in federal court, where Christensen is being tried.