Yingying Zhang’s Death: Everything We Know

ABC ’20/20’ pitches forward one of the most gruesome crimes witnessed in the last decade—the kidnapping and murder of a visiting Chinese scholar named Yingying Zhang. The disappearance and its details sparked a kind of fear among a large community of college students, showing them how vulnerable they can be in the face of predators on the lookout for victims. 

Who is Yingying Zhang? 

Yingying Zhang was a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Coming from the city of Nanping, Zhang was the first person to go to a university from her family. Her father works as a truck driver, and her mother who has not formally been educated is largely a homemaker. Her brother, at the time, was learning to work as a cook. The family, who envisioned an incredible future for Zhang, saw their dreams marred by horror when they learned about her disappearance. Even as ‘20/20’ interviews her former teachers and professors, one can see how gifted she was as a scholar, seeking to contribute to the field of academia. 

Yingying Zhang was also in a long term relationship with Xiaolin Hou, whom she had met at Peking University. The two were allegedly planning on getting married the same year she went missing. 

Yingying Zhang’s Disappearance 

On 9 June 2017, Zhang had an appointment with a leasing agent as she was on the lookout for an apartment she could shift into. There is surveillance footage of her boarding a bus and exiting at 1: 52 PM. Though she tried to flag down another bus, it did not stop as it was on the other side of the road, and as a rule, buses are not supposed to stop in such a manner as it encourages people to rashly cross the road. Zhang then walked to another bus stop, in front of PBS radio and television station. It was then that a black Saturn Astra passed her by and then eventually circled back to where she was waiting at about 2:03 PM. By this time, Zhang had texted the leasing agent that she would arrive by around 2:10 PM. 

The surveillance footage shows her talking to the car driver and getting in. This was the last time she was ever seen. Though her leasing agent texted her back, she never responded. Her friends grew worried when she had not come back and reported her as missing to the University of Illinois Police Department. 

Search and Arrest 

The University of Illinois Police Department and Urbana Police Department contacted the FBI to locate Zhang, especially since not many details could be figured out from the vehicle into which Zhang got in. This then turned out to be a widespread search involving students from campus and several others. On 17 June, Zhang’s father, her aunt, and her boyfriend came to Champaign to further help with the search. A reward of $ 40,000 was announced for those who had any tips that would help in finding Zhang. Though many reported seeing her, it was confirmed later that it was not Zhang. The police were not able to figure out the license plate number from the surveillance footage, so they began to track down all black Saturn Astras since it was a unique model. 

One of the police investigators observed that the car in which Zhang got into had a cracked hubcap. Also, they noted its sunroof, which stood out. Thus, they traced the car’s owner—Brendt Christensen, a former Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois. The Master’s holder in Physics, who was also married at the time, was interrogated by the police, who found out that his story wavered. He then stated that he gave an unknown Asian female a ride and that she exited the vehicle soon in panic. After that, the police obtained a search warrant to procure his car, cellphones, and other such items. 

Christensen’s girlfriend at the time, Terra Bullis, cooperated with the FBI and wore a wire when she spoke to Christensen, and uncovered shocking details in which he spoke about how he committed the crime. He was then arrested and sent to trial. His legal trial began in June 2019. Based on the recording in which he admitted to committing the crime, he had raped, strangled, stabbed and decapitated Zhang, after which he disposed of her body. The jury could not come to a unanimous decision regarding a death sentence, thus, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole in July 2019. (Feature Image Credit: Yingying Zhang/ ABC 20/20)

Read More: Where is Brendt Christensen Today?