Yingying Zhang was a 26-year-old visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who went missing on June 9, 2017. The investigation eventually led the FBI to former University of Illinois Ph.D. student Brendt Christensen, who is now serving life in prison for Zhang’s murder.
Ahead of the 20/20 episode about Zhang’s abduction, rape, and murder, here’s what you need to know about the case and why her remains are unlikely to ever be found.
Christensen Disposed of Zhang In Separate Trash Bags That Were Compacted and Buried in a Landfill
During Christensen’s 2018-2019 trial, he made a deal with federal prosecutors to tell them what he did with Zhang’s body in exchange for the prosecutors not seeking the death penalty against him. Therefore, it was only after Christensen was sentenced and went to prison that federal prosecutors could reveal the details of Christensen’s confession.
According to the Associated Press, Zhang family attorney Steve Beckett said the family was notified that the Vermilion County landfill along the Illinois-Indiana border is the likely site of Zhang’s remains. Christensen had previously informed his attorneys that after he killed Zhang, he dismembered her and disposed of her in three separate garbage bags. They were removed three days later when the dumpster outside his apartment building was emptied and taken to the Vermilion County landfill where they would have been compacted at least twice.
The area where they ended up is likely 50 yards wide and by the time the details were revealed, buried under at least 30 feet of subsequent garbage, making it next to impossible to locate Zhang’s remains.
“It is evident that any attempt to recover Yingying’s remains would be complicated and expensive, would require government oversight and the cooperation of the landfill owners, and would have no certainty of success,” Beckett said in a statement to WTTW, adding, “[Federal investigators] described for us that at this stage, with decomposition and then compaction, the size of the remains could be smaller than a cellphone.”
Christensen Was Caught Largely Because of the Confession His Girlfriend Got While Wearing a Wire for the FBI
During the investigation into Christensen, the FBI enlisted Christensen’s girlfriend Terra Bullis to wear a wire and get him to talk about what happened to Zhang.
According to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Bullis recorded nine conversations with Christensen prior to his arrest on June 30, 2017. The most damning conversation came at the campus vigil for Zhang where Christensen bragged to Bullis about choking Zhang, raping her, hitting her with a baseball bat, stabbing her, and decapitating her.
He also drunkenly confessed to Bullis about idolizing Ted Bundy and that Zhang was his 13th victim, a claim investigators eventually felt had no merit — though they did uncover that prior to Zhang’s abduction and murder, Christensen had posed as an undercover cop and attempted to abduct another woman, a graduate student named Emily Hogan, who had refused to get in his car, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Christensen was found guilty of one count of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to the FBI and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
20/20 airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.