Sentencing begins Monday for 29-year-old Brendt Christensen, whom an Illinois jury found guilty of the 2017 kidnapping and murder of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, 26. It took the jury under two hours last week to convict Christensen on three charges: kidnapping resulting in a death and two counts of making false statements to the FBI, CBS Chicago reported. The same jury will decide whether he will be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.
The federal trial for Zhang's murder began on June 12, when it was revealed in opening statements that Christensen has an obsession with serial killers — specifically, Ted Bundy. The court learned that Christensen, a former physics graduate student at the University of Illinois, abducted Zhang at a bus stop, sexually assaulted her, and then beat her to death with a baseball bat and decapitated her in June 2017.
Zhang came to Urbana, IL, from China to complete her doctoral studies with the dream of becoming a professor. She was last seen getting into Christensen’s car after missing her bus (she is shown running after it in surveillance footage); she was on her way to sign a lease for an off-campus apartment. Zhang’s body was never found.
A mix of surveillance footage, online search histories, and statements recorded by the FBI with the help of Christensen’s former girlfriend, Terra Bullis, led to his arrest. In the recordings, Christensen described in detail how he killed Zhang and her “valiant” attempts to fight back, and claimed no one would ever be able to find her body. In her testimony, Bullis told the court Christensen confessed the murder to her when they attended a vigil for Zhang after she had been reported missing. He grabbed her phone and typed, “It was me,” and, “She is gone. Forever,” BBC reported. Bullis agreed to help the FBI by wearing a wire and recording her conversations with the suspected murderer.
Christensen’s defense attorneys attempted to delay the sentencing, arguing that prosecutors turned over too many victim impact statements at the last minute, and that translating the videos of interviews of Zhang's family from Chinese to English would take weeks. U.S. District Judge James Shadid denied the request, and instead told prosecutors to provide the defense team with specific clips they plan on using at sentencing.
“After Yingying Zhang went missing two years ago, many Chinese people were rattled,” BBC journalist Zhaoyin Feng wrote in her analysis of the story. “This is not because Zhang was a well-known celebrity. She was quite the opposite: an average Chinese student in the U.S., who was new to this country and trusted a stranger.”
According to China Daily, Zhang had only been in the U.S. for about a month before her disappearance. A native to China’s Fujian province, she was a visiting researcher with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s department of natural resources and environmental studies. Zhang received her master’s degree in environmental engineering from Peking University in 2016.