Illinois man sentenced to life for killing Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang

The remains of Yingying Zhang have not been found. Her family pleaded with the man convicted in her death to tell them where she is.
Ronggao Zhang, middle, father of murdered University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, speaks to the media in Chinese as attorney Zhidong Wang, left, translates during a news conference, Thursday, July 18, 2019, at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria, Ill. In background is Yingying's boyfriend Xiaolin Hou.
Ronggao Zhang, middle, father of murdered University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, speaks to the media in Chinese as attorney Zhidong Wang, left, translates during a news conference, Thursday, July 18, 2019, at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria, Ill. In background is Yingying's boyfriend Xiaolin Hou.Matt Dayhoff / Journal Star via AP

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By Phil Helsel

An Illinois man was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of release for kidnapping and killing visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang in 2017.

After the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on the sentence, a federal judge sentenced Brendt Christensen, 30, to life in prison. He was convicted last month on charges of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to FBI agents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois said in a statement.

Brendt Christensen's mugshot.Macon County Sheriff's Office

Prosecutors and Zhang's family had pushed for the death penalty, but a jury decision on that had to be unanimous. If even one juror opposed, then the life sentence was applied.

"Tragically, a young woman’s life was cut short by the evil crimes perpetrated in this case,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s criminal division said in a statement.

"The Department of Justice insisted on holding the defendant accountable to the fullest extent of the law, and hopes that today’s outcome delivers some measure of justice for Yingying Zhang and her family,” he said.

At trial, defense attorneys conceded that he committed the crime, in a bid to spare Christensen the death penalty.

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Zhang's father said the family wanted the jury to decide to impose the death penalty.

"However, we accept that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, which still reflects our loss in a meaningful way," he said. "We hope that every day he spends in prison he feels the pain and suffering that we feel for the loss of Yingying."

Federal prosecutors said that Christensen raped, choked and stabbed Zhang before beating her to death with a bat and decapitating her, but her remains have never been found.

Zhang, 26, came to the U.S. as a visiting scholar in April 2017 to begin post-grad research at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana campus and disappeared June 9, 2017, as she was on her way to sign a lease for an apartment, prosecutors said.

In this undated handout, Chinese scholar, Yingying Zhang, is shown.University of Illinois Police Department

Zhang's family after the sentencing pleaded with Christensen to tell authorities what he did with her body to end the family’s torment.

"Now that the trial is over and the jury has made its decision, we ask the defendant to unconditionally tell us what he knows about Yingying's location," her father, Ronggao Zhang, said according to NBC affiliate WAND of Decatur.

"If you have any humanity left in your soul, please help end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home,” he said.

Christensen was asked if he wanted to say anything at Thursday’s sentencing hearing and replied “no, thank you," WAND reported.

Zhang, who was running late for the apartment meeting, disappeared after getting into the front seat of a car driven by Christensen, which was recorded by security video from a bus stop, prosecutors said.

When questioned, Christensen said he couldn’t remember his whereabouts that day, and then three days later changed his story and said he offered an Asian woman a ride, according to a criminal complaint.

Investigators also noted that a search of his car showed the area where a passenger would have sat appeared to have been diligently cleaned. Christensen was placed under surveillance, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said that on June 29, 2017, during a vigil to raise awareness for the missing scholar, Christensen described to his girlfriend how he had killed Zhang, and the woman recorded the conversation. His apartment was searched, and he was arrested a day later.

Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but in federal cases the death sentence can still be imposed.

Associated Press contributed.