URBANA — After visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang disappeared in June 2017, her case quickly gained national and international attention.
Longtime ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff had a natural interest.
“I started in China 32 years ago when I was a lawyer, and then I’ve reported for the last five years out of China through ABC’s bureau in Beijing,” Woodruff said.
But it was more than that connection, he said.
“It became one of the largest stories followed in China. ... It was probably the most well-known story that I have experienced in a long time. It was all over WeChat. It was all over CCTV on television. It was in the newspapers,” Woodruff said. “This is a story that every family, every person, no matter what country you’re from, could relate to.”
“20/20” will air its two-hour episode on Ms. Zhang’s murder at 8 p.m. today on ABC.
Over the course of months of reporting, ABC traveled to China to interview Ms. Zhang’s parents in their hometown of Nanping in the country's southeast.
“Yingying’s mom is so emotional that it’s really constant crying from her,” Woodruff said. Ms. Zhang "was the one that was one of the top of her class at what is the Harvard of China. ... To have lost her was so horrific that when I interviewed her, all the times that we did, she was in tears.”
They also traveled to Beijing to interview Yingying’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou.
“Yingying’s boyfriend was a pretty spectacular person. He kind of captured the story for us. He was the one closest to her that spoke English, too,” Woodruff said. “And he was so committed to her, since the first day he started dating her to this day, even though we’ve lost her.”
In Champaign-Urbana, ABC interviewed News-Gazette and Daily Illini reporters who covered the case from its beginning, University of Illinois police officers who helped lead investigators to the suspect, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Two years after Ms. Zhang went missing, former UI physics grad student Brendt Christensen was convicted this summer of kidnapping, then killing her while she waited for a bus in Urbana.
While he faced the death penalty, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on that.
Christensen was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.
He’s currently being held at a federal transfer center in Oklahoma.
Ms. Zhang’s body has never been found, but Christensen told his attorneys he put her body into three garbage bags outside his apartment.
In August, the family’s attorney, Steve Beckett, said if that’s the case, her body would likely have been taken to a landfill in Vermilion County, compacted twice and nearly impossible to find.
Father: UI shares blame
ABC also interviewed Christensen’s father, Michael.
He believes the tragedy could’ve been prevented had the University of Illinois counseling center done more to help Brendt Christensen.
“I’m angry that it could’ve been prevented,” he told ABC News in an excerpt of the show released this week.
The counseling center’s handling of Christensen is also the source of a federal civil lawsuit filed by the estate of Ms. Zhang.
The lawsuit alleges that two social workers at the counseling center should have done more when, three months before he killed Ms. Zhang, Christensen told them about his fascination with serial killers.
He also told them that he had bought and returned items to transport and dispose of a body.
The lawsuit has put the UI in the position of both providing care and comfort to Ms. Zhang’s family while opposing them in court.
“We will continue to support the (Zhang) family as we have throughout this ordeal, and we will defend the social workers who are named in the civil suit,” UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler told ABC News. “The professionals and staff of our counseling center are highly qualified and trained to provide care and services to students consistent with the best practices in mental health care, and we are confident they have followed these best practices.”
The UI filed a motion in August to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the social workers “cannot be held legally responsible for the random and incomprehensible actions of a lone individual committed more than two months after the Social Workers saw Christensen a single time each.”
A judge has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss.
Girlfriend played key role
The “20/20” episode is titled “Undercover Girlfriend,” referencing Christensen’s girlfriend at the time, who wore a wire for the FBI.
She surreptitiously recorded Christensen in the weeks leading up to his arrest, including after a campus vigil held for Ms. Zhang that they attended.
In that recording, Christensen describes killing Ms. Zhang in graphic detail. He was arrested the next day.
While ABC News wasn’t able to interview her on the record, it did interview the lead FBI agent on the case, Anthony Manganaro, who is now based in Baltimore.
“We got to ask him questions I think we’ve been wanting to ask him for a long time,” field producer Victor Ordonez said.