Xiaolin Hou, boyfriend of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old University of Illinois scholar from China who was kidnapped and killed, expresses his thoughts on the life sentence for her convicted killer, Brendt Christensen, during a news conference at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria, Ill., Thursday, July 18, 2019.

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URBANA — Already devastated by jurors choosing life over death for their daughter’s killer, Yingying Zhang’s parents now face the prospect of returning to China a second time without her remains.

Their plane tickets were booked for later, expecting the two-part trial of Brendt Christensen to last longer than it did. So as the Zhangs wait to fly back to their home country, they’ll meet with federal prosecutors and investigators, as well as Champaign County Crime Stoppers officials, according to family attorney Steve Beckett.

“The meeting with prosecutors would involve if there’s any other information that we don’t know about and just answering questions that the family may have,” he told News-Gazette Media. “The main focus is, in any way possible, to find (Ms. Zhang’s) remains.”

After it was announced Thursday in Peoria that Christensen’s life would be spared, Ms. Zhang’s father pleaded one more time for the man responsible for his daughter’s death to help locate Yingying’s remains.

“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,” Ronggao Zhang said, according to a translation. “If you have any humanity left in your soul, please help end our torment. Please, let us bring Yingying home.”

U.S. Attorney John Milhiser vowed that “the efforts to locate Yingying have not stopped. They started two years ago, and they’ll continue.”

Beckett said "the family’s focus is on how can we make this travesty meaningful in a long-term way so that Yingying is not forgotten.”

Since Christensen kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang in June 2017, investigators have been unable to find her body, despite intense search efforts.

But in pretrial documents, Christensen’s lawyers stated that finding Ms. Zhang’s remains was something “over which he had no control. ... He could not guarantee that the victim’s remains would be found.”

As for Christensen, it’s not yet clear where he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. One thing is certain, though: His next stop won’t be as nice as his stay at the Livingston County Jail was.

There, he had his own shower, TV, phone and tablet, with access to email, music and YouTube, according to testimony from jail guards.

Another perk: If every inmate behaved, they could get food from local restaurants on Fridays, the jail superintendent testified.

“The evidence in the case was he had quite a bit of freedom and privilege in the county jails where federal prisoners are housed awaiting trial,” Beckett said. “It won’t be that way in the Bureau of Prisons.”

Prison points system

The Federal Bureau of Prisons will determine where Christensen heads next, using a variety of factors. They include the level of supervision and security the inmate requires, where the prisoner is from, and any special needs he may have, such as medical or mental-health treatment.

Beckett said this process could take about a month.

Before being relocated, inmates are assigned points based on the severity of their offense, criminal history, history of violence, history of escape attempts, age, education, and drug and alcohol abuse, among other factors.

The more points an inmate accumulates, the more secure the prison he’s assigned to. Based on the rubric on the Bureau of Prisons’ website, Christensen will likely head to a high-security U.S. penitentiary.

In pretrial documents, his attorneys noted that they expected that as well, if jurors opted to sentence him to life in prison.

The nearest high-security prison is in Terre Haute, Ind., where Christensen likely would have wound up had he been sentenced to death. Terre Haute is where federal “death row” inmates are executed and where the majority of them are sent to serve the years leading up to their execution by lethal injection.

Pollock: Tucson preferred

At Thursday’s sentencing, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock asked U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid to recommend that the Bureau of Prisons assign Christensen to the high-security federal prison in Tucson, Ariz., the state where his ex-wife now lives, according to court documents.

Other prisoners who have committed similar crimes are housed there, Pollock said.

But judges aren’t required to make a recommendation, and Shadid, who had just castigated Christensen for his “self-absorbed and selfish fantasies,” said he’d leave the decision up to the Bureau of Prisons.

He also reminded Christensen of what comes next while at the same time encouraging him to show a shred of remorse.

“Whatever self-centered opinion you have of yourself,” Shadid said, “when you are taken out of here today by the United States marshals to wait for that lonely, isolated and cold deathbed that follows your natural life in prison, maybe, just maybe, the moment will strike you to pick up paper and pen and write ‘I’m sorry’ to Mr. and Mrs. Zhang.”



Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is bzigterman@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).

WDWS Reporter

Tim Ditman is a reporter at WDWS 1400-AM. His email is tditman@wdws.com.