Yingying Zhang Murder: Where is Brendt Christensen Now?

When Yingying Zhang went missing on June 9, 2017, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign was thrown into chaos as people searched frantically for the visiting Chinese scholar. However, soon, through the lenses of CCTVs, the police learned that the answer might be a lot closer to home than people thought. Investigation Discovery’s ‘See No Evil: Far from Home’ chronicles the disappearance and the horrifying ordeal Zhang had to endure before her untimely death.

How Did Yingying Zhang Die?

Yingying Zhang was a Chinese national enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign as a visiting student. She was a brilliant scholar and had won numerous laurels in China before coming to the US in April 2017, where she was supposed to stay for a year. Very new to the country, Zhang still hadn’t settled down properly when a devastating state of affairs snuffed out her wonderful life.

On June 9, 2017, the day Zhang went missing, she was supposed to meet a leasing agent to sign for a new apartment where she planned to stay. The apartment was off-campus, and thus, Zhang had to travel quite a bit from her university to get to it. Around 2 p.m., a CCTV camera spotted Zhang in a bus stand located directly opposite the university’s very own radio and television station. While Zhang was waiting there, cameras caught a black Saturn Astra pass her by. However, just three minutes later, the car returned, and Zhang was seen getting into it.

That was the last anyone ever heard or saw from Zhang. When she did not turn up on time for the lease signing, the agent sent her a text which went unanswered. Zhang’s friends, too, had no idea about her whereabouts, and they were worried about the visiting student getting into trouble in an unfamiliar place. However, calls and texts to Zhang’s phone went unanswered, and the worry heightened with time. With no news of the Chinese student for several hours, university authorities decided to approach the police and file a missing person report.

With Zhang reported missing, there was a massive uproar in the university. Students grouped together to find her, while the FBI was brought on to help the local police department. However, even with massive searches and attractive cash rewards announced, the few leads the police got led to nothing. By this time, Zhang’s family flew in from China and helped in the search. Determined to find a closure to the case, authorities decided to turn to CCTVs as a last-ditch effort to locate her. It ultimately came to light she’d been sexually assaulted and decapitated, yet her remains still haven’t been uncovered.

Who Killed Yingying Zhang?

Brendt Christensen, a former Ph.D. student at the same university, was convicted of Zhang’s murder in 2019. When the police began looking into black Saturn Astras around the area where Zhang was last spotted, they came across one Brendt Christensen, who owned the same kind of car. Brendt had previous mental health issues as an ABC news report mentioned that in 2017, he had admitted to having homicidal intent after conducting research on serial killers. This greatly alarmed counselors, but they later deduced that he was not in immediate need of hospitalization. However, Brendt never returned for a second counseling session like he was asked to.

Brendt also had a Master’s in Physics but dropped out from his Ph.D. program and instead claimed that he was searching for employment. When the police questioned Brendt, he denied being involved in Zhang’s disappearance. He told authorities that he was at home around the time in question. When the police searched his car, nothing stood out of the ordinary at first glance. However, a few precise details matched Brendt’s Saturn Astra to the one seen on CCTV. They also found evidence of a part of the car being cleaned extra thoroughly, which hinted towards Brendt hiding something.

Initially, during interrogations, Brendt claimed to have mixed up the dates and denied meeting any Asians. However, he soon broke down and told authorities that he had picked up an Asian girl, but she was not in his car for a long time. Brendt claimed that he had dropped the girl off at a place that looked like a residential area but could not pinpoint the exact location, which further caused doubt.

On the other hand, law enforcement also learned that Brendt was in an open marriage with Michelle Zortman while dating Terra Bullis at the same time. The FBI approached Bullis, who was very confident about Brendt’s innocence. Eager to clear her boyfriend’s name, Bullis agreed to wear a wire for the FBI and accompany her boyfriend on a memorial walk for Zhang. As the FBI listened on, Brendt revealed a terrifying truth to his girlfriend.

He confessed to posing as an undercover police officer and picking Zhang up before bringing her back to his apartment. He then boasted about choking, sexually assaulting, and beating her to death with a baseball bat. He even confessed to having decapitated her body before disposing of these parts separately to reduce the chances of discovery. Reports also claim that Brendt claimed to be a serial killer, but that claim has never been substantiated and is believed to be false. With a confession on hand, the FBI arrested Brendt and charged him with the murder of Yingying Zhang.

Brendt Christensen Continues to Serve His Life Term

The Chinese government closely followed Brendt Christensen’s trial, and the prosecution was determined to seek the death penalty. During the trial, several people, including Terra Bullis, testified against Brendt. People from the FBI also said under oath that Zhang’s DNA and her blood were found inside Brendt’s apartment, which unmistakeably linked him to the crime. However, Brendt refused to divulge any information about the location of Zhang’s remains.

With the defense already admitting that Brendt killed Zhang, the jury did not take long to find him guilty of the crime. However, the jury was divided over the decision for the death penalty, as a result of which Brendt was sentenced to only life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2018. Furthermore, he was convicted on two additional counts of lying to the FBI, which netted him two 5-year sentences to run consecutively with a life term. He was also ordered to pay a hefty fine of $250,000 for each conviction. Therefore, today, at the age of 34, Brendt Christensen is a federal prisoner serving his life sentence at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman II, in Florida.

It was only after Brendt’s trial and conviction that the fate of Yingying Zhang’s body came to light. It was revealed he’d dismembered her body and put it into separate garbage bags, which he kept outside his apartment to be picked up by local garbage trucks. With these taking their loads to landfills across the city, authorities figured that her remains might have been spread around several landfills by the time Brendt was convicted. So, unfortunately, Yingying Zhang’s remains have never been found.

Read More: Where is Terra Bullis Today?