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LIFE IN PRISON

Christensen avoids death penalty after jury says it cannot reach unanimous verdict

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Zhang Christensen sentencing

PEORIA — When his sentence of life in prison was announced Thursday afternoon, Brendt Christensen didn’t have much of a visible reaction.

He looked over at his mother, who was crying, and when he was formally sentenced 90 minutes later, he smiled a little at his parents when he was brought in.

But after he chose not to make a statement, U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid made it clear that Christensen, 30, should not feel good about avoiding the death penalty for killing Yingying Zhang.

“The mercy extended to you by the jury is a testament to their humanity, not your character,” he said, calling Christensen’s kidnapping and killing of Ms. Zhang in June 2017 an “inexplicable act of violence.”

“The Zhang family, who may never know where their daughter’s remains now rest must live with the thought that Yingying was ripped away from them by a total stranger, thousands of miles away, fulfilling his self-absorbed and selfish fantasies with no regard, yet to this day, for anyone other than himself,” he said.

And Shadid said it was clear Christensen never showed remorse for killing Ms. Zhang.

Christensen Zhang graduation.jpg

A 2016 selfie provided by her family shows Yingying Zhang in a cap and gown for her graduate degree in environmental engineering from Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School.

“Your complete and total lack of remorse was not lost on anyone and emphasized one more time today when given the opportunity to speak, and not subject to any cross-examination, you could have said whatever you wanted to say for as little or as long as you wished,” Shadid said. “And yet today, 769 days after you took Yingying’s life, you could not muster a simple, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Finally, after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision, he sentenced Christensen to life in prison without the possibility of release, along with the maximum-allowed $750,000 fine and five-year sentences for each of the two counts he was found guilty of for lying to the FBI.

“Whatever self-centered opinion you have of yourself,” he 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.”

Gruesome details

The lengthy trial answered many questions about what happened to Ms. Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting University of Illinois scholar, after she was last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen’s Saturn Astra.

AUDIO: Christensen vigil tape, part 1
AUDIO: Christensen vigil tape, part 2

The prosecutors played tapes recorded by his ex-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, describing how he said he killed Ms. Zhang.

He said he raped her, choked her for 10 minutes, stabbed her in the neck with a knife, hit her in the head with his bat and cut off her head.

Shadid praised Bullis for wearing the wire, saying she showed “more courage than the defendant could ever muster.”

But Christensen wouldn’t tell Bullis, and still hasn’t said, what he did with Ms. Zhang’s body.

In pretrial documents, Christensen’s lawyers said 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.”

He was represented in court by Assistant Federal Defenders Elisabeth Pollock and George Taseff, as well as attorneys Julie Brain and Robert Tucker. After the sentencing, they declined to comment.

'Please, let us bring Yingying home'

Christensen Zhang1

Members of the Zhang family try to support Lifeng Ye, mother of murdered University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, as attorney Zhidong Wang translates a statement from Ms. Zhang's father, Ronggao Zhang, during a press conference Thursday, July 18, 2019 at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria.

At a news conference after the sentencing, Ms. Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, asked Christensen again to help find his daughter.

“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,” he 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.”

Ronggao Zhang said the family will not have closure until she can be given a proper burial.

“Our goal is, and has always been, to bring Yingying home,” he said. “Unless and until we are able to do that, we will not have peace or closure.”

Steve Beckett, an attorney for the family, said they were “devastated” by the life sentence, “second only to learning that your daughter was missing and ultimately killed.”

At the news conference, Ms. Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, cried and struggled to stand as her husband spoke.

“While we do not agree” with the life sentence, Ronggao Zhang said, “we accept that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, which still reflects our loss in a meaningful way. We hope that every day he spends in prison he feels the pain and suffering that we feel for the loss of Yingying.”

Christensen sentencing final 2

Xiaolin Hou, boyfriend of murdered University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, expresses his thoughts on the life sentence handed down for her convicted killer, Brendt Christensen, during a news conference Thursday, July 18, 2019, at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria as her mother, Lifeng Ye, is held up by supporters.

Ms. Zhang’s boyfriend, the man she planned to marry in October 2017, Xiaolin Hou, said the life sentence didn’t make sense to him.

He said the sentence showed him that if someone wanted to kill and still live, they should just become a loner and abuse alcohol and drugs, referencing some of the defense’s arguments.

“For my own personal opinion, the result today seemed to encourage people to do crimes,” he said. “Me, myself, will never agree with that.”

'He's been held accountable'

Christensen sentencing final 4

John C. Milhiser, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, speaks to the media Thursday, July 18, 2019, at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria about the life sentence handed down for Brendt Christensen, convicted June 24 of kidnapping and killing University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang in June 2017.

The U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, John Milhiser, said that the prosecutors “respect the decision of the jury.”

“We would not have asked for the death penalty if we did not think it was appropriate given the facts in this case, given what this defendant did to Yingying,” he said. “But we respect the decision of the jury. It is a hope, and a sincere hope, that the family has some sense of justice and some sense of closure in this case.”

And he said justice was still served in this case.

“For his unthinkable acts, he’s been held accountable,” he said. “He will live the rest of his life in prison, and he will die in prison, as he should for these horrendous acts.”

Milhiser also thanked the prosecutors — Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eugene Miller and Bryan Freres, and Justice Department Attorney James Nelson — as well as the FBI, UI police, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department, the Illinois State Police and the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, “who all worked to solve this case.”

He specifically thanked the lead agents on the case, Anthony Manganaro and Andrew Huckstadt, “who worked tirelessly for two years to make sure this defendant was brought to justice.”

Search continues

Throughout the trial, FBI agents and UI police detectives described the extensive search for Ms. Zhang after she went missing.

They testified about working 20-hour days in the weeks after she was kidnapped, searching garbage bags at Centennial Park, the Murdock Mine 30 miles south of Champaign and an isolated area near Olympian Drive and Interstate 57.

And the search continued, with an FBI agent describing a search of Clinton Lake in November 2017 and another of Allerton Park in 2018.

And as the news conference was wrapping up, Milhiser made one more comment.

“The efforts to locate Yingying have not stopped,” he said. “They started two years ago, and they’ll continue.”

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'Life is too short to be ordinary'

Almost two years ago, when Ms. Zhang’s family was still in Champaign-Urbana looking for their daughter, the UI gave them a copy of their daughter’s journal.

But because it was part of the government’s evidence, the journal itself could not be handed over — until Thursday.

At the end of the formal sentencing, prosecutors asked to withdraw exhibit 11B, Ms. Zhang’s journal, and gave it to her family.

The last line she wrote before she was kidnapped and killed: “Life is too short to be ordinary.”

Reporter

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).