PEORIA — More than two years after Yingying Zhang was last seen, and after listening to eight days of testimony from 35 witnesses, it took a federal jury less than two hours Monday to convict Brendt Christensen of kidnapping and killing her.
Jurors sent a note through a court security officer that they had reached a verdict, and when they were called into court at 2 p.m., the foreman handed the clerk the signed verdict forms.
Judge Jim Shadid was then handed the forms and read the results:
— Guilty of kidnapping resulting in the death of Ms. Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois from China.
— Guilty of lying to the FBI by saying he slept and played video games on June 9, 2017, the day Ms. Zhang was last seen.
— Guilty of lying to the FBI by saying that after he picked up an Asian woman, he dropped her off a few blocks away.
When the verdict was read, Christensen did not noticeably react, sitting attentively with his team of court-appointed lawyers, much as he has throughout the trial.
The verdicts were hardly a surprise, given that his lawyers admitted he killed Ms. Zhang in their opening statement and said in their closing argument that they expected a guilty verdict.
The bigger question has been whether the jury will sentence Christensen to life in prison or death.
That will be determined in the sentencing phase, which will begin July 8 and is expected to last at least a week, Shadid said.
But the conviction put a cap on a case that has captivated the University of Illinois community and garnered international attention.
After the court recessed Monday, the U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case and the lead FBI agents who investigated it walked over to Ms. Zhang's family and shook their hands.
Her family has been sitting in the first and second rows of the gallery every day of trial, listening to a translation through an earpiece of the often gruesome proceedings.
After Ms. Zhang's family left the courthouse Monday, her father, Ronggao Zhang, read a statement in Chinese to the dozens of reporters present for the verdict.
"On behalf of Yingying, our beloved daughter, and for my wife, my son and myself, I thank the jury for this step towards justice," said Zhang, who was joined by his wife, Lifeng Ye, their son, Xinyang Zhang, and Ms. Zhang's boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou.
"We have missed Yingying tremendously in the past two years. As of today, we still could not imagine how we will live the rest of our lives without her," he said, according to a provided translation. "There is no language that can describe our pain and suffering. We hope and believe that this trial will eventually bring justice to Yingying and us. Our wish has always been to find Yingying and bring her home. We will not give up."
Ms. Zhang's mother cried into her hands through much of the statement, and as her husband finished, she began wailing in Chinese.
She said something to the effect of, "I want to bring my daughter home," according to their family lawyer, Zhidong Wang.
During the trial, Ye watched from an overflow room, as the family's other attorney, Steve Beckett, said the sight of Christensen could bring her to tears.
Ms. Zhang arrived in Urbana in April 2017 to study photosynthesis in corn and soybeans as a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois, with the hope of eventually receiving her doctorate.
Wang said she was "probably the perfect daughter you could dream of."
"She is from a rural area in China. She went to an average elementary school, and then she went to probably like a No. 4 or No. 5 middle school, and then she went to the No. 1 high school in her region," he said. "She went on to a very prestigious university in China, and then she did her master's degree in the so-called No. 1 university, Peking University, in China."
He said she was "working very hard toward her dreams."
"Also, she has been a very nice daughter to her parents. She always shared with them her life stories and where she is," Wang said. "Losing someone like that is so hard on the family."
In another statement from Wang and Beckett, they acknowledged how painful the process has been since Ms. Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017.
"They have been traumatized by the loss of Yingying, by the delays in the case against the person who murdered Yingying, and by the testimony they heard during the trial," they said. "Their emotional distress has been, at times, unbearable. The jury's verdict of guilty in this case is a step toward justice for Yingying and a step toward closure for Yingying's family."
The family's lawyers also thanked the investigators, prosecutors and witnesses who testified, in particular Emily Hogan, a former grad student who said she was approached by Christensen the day Ms. Zhang was kidnapped, and Terra Bullis, his ex-girlfriend, who wore a wire for the FBI.
"Terra's courage is self-evident, and the assistance she gave to law enforcement was invaluable," they said.
And they recognized Christensen's lawyers.
"We recognize that the defense lawyers had a difficult task in the case," he said. "We appreciate the respect they have shown the family."
As for the family's wishes during the sentencing phase, Wang said prosecutors consulted with the family when they were deciding whether to seek the death penalty.
"The family did ask the prosecutors to consider and to request for the death penalty," Wang said.
But he said, "We'll leave that to the jury. We think that the trial, the process, eventually is going to bring justice for Yingying and the Zhang family."
Prosecutors and defense attorneys said they can't comment until the sentencing phase is done, but they made their final pitches Monday in their closing arguments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller laid out in 68 minutes what he called the "mountain of evidence" presented over eight days.
He stood at a lectern facing the jury and began the same way he started his opening statement.
"He kidnapped her, he murdered her, and he covered up his crime," Miller said, "after months of planning and premeditation."
This case has "always been about the search for Yingying," he said. "There is only one person that is responsible, and he sits right there, the defendant, Brendt Christensen," who was wearing khakis and a blue dress shirt.
Miller said Christensen's "downward spiral," as the defense put it, was "caused by the defendant's own decisions ... that were the product of a 27-year-old man afraid to give up his way of life."
In the spring of 2017, Christensen was looking for a full-time job after settling for a master's in physics from the UI instead of a doctorate as he had hoped.
"Idle hands are the devil's workshop," Miller said, arguing that Christensen used his idle time to plan the murder. "He didn't know (his victim) by name. She was still in China."
In December 2016, Christensen told his wife after a night of drinking about his interest in serial killers, according to a video played during the trial.
And in March 2017, he told an intern at the UI Counseling Center that he had made murderous plans but abandoned them, according to the video.
He then tried to set up a consensual kidnapping using a large duffel bag on the fetish social network FetLife, which Miller argued was evidence of Christensen planning for the attack.
So when Christensen's wife left for Wisconsin that weekend in June 2017, Miller argued Christensen had the opportunity to act on his plans.
Hogan, then a grad student, said on the morning of June 9, 2017, Christensen approached her in his car pretending to be an undercover cop and told her to get in, but she didn't.
At 2:04 p.m., Christensen kidnapped Ms. Zhang.
She was running late to an appointment at the One North apartment complex, where she was looking for a new apartment to save some money and get some roommates.
But she missed her connecting bus and tried to run after it, instead stopping at the corner of Clark Street and Goodwin Avenue to wait for the next one.Christensen is seen on surveillance footage circling the block and stopping for Ms. Zhang, who was by herself at the bus stop.
They talk for a minute, then she gets in his Saturn Astra.
Miller said it was "chilling to imagine the fear she must've felt" when Ms. Zhang realized Christensen was not a police officer, not taking her to One North and that she was now locked inside his car.
"He knew exactly what he was doing," Miller said. "This was cold, and this was calculated."
Christensen had "been planning and fantasizing about this moment for months," Miller argued. "She was an object for him to fulfill his dark desire, which was to kill for the sake of killing."
He said that "tragically, the evidence of (Yingying's death) is overwhelming. Yingying has never been seen" since she entered Christensen's car, Miller said, despite intense search efforts by investigators and Ms. Zhang's friends and family.
In her 10-minute closing argument, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said there was "not much dispute" that the evidence showed Christensen killed Ms. Zhang.
"It's Brendt's fault," she said. "I expect that you will" find him guilty.
But Pollock urged the jurors to keep an open mind about what she said was not proven during the guilt phase, including:
— That Christensen stuffed Ms. Zhang in a 6-foot duffel bag.
She said it didn't make sense that Christensen would keep her body in the duffel bag in the utility room of the apartment he shared with his wife without her noticing, as the prosecution has suggested.
— That he killed her as gruesomely as he described in the recording secretly made by his ex-girlfriend.
In that same recording, Christensen made the uncorroborated claim that Ms. Zhang was his 13th victim. Because of this, the defense has argued that much of what he said on the recording can't be trusted.
— That Ms. Zhang's DNA was only found in Christensen's bedroom, not his bathroom, where he said he hit her in the head with a bat, stabbed her in the neck with a knife and cut off her head.
While she was in theory making a closing argument, Pollock continued where Assistant Federal Defender George Taseff left off in his opening statement when he said, "Christensen is on trial for his life."
The defense hasn't tried to dispute that Christensen kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang, instead trying to poke holes in arguments the government is expected to make during the sentencing phase and gain sympathy for Christensen.
While Pollock acknowledged that Christensen described doing "horrible things" to Ms. Zhang and that the tape is "awful, it's horrible. It makes you hate him," she urged the jury to not let their emotions overcome the facts.
She described Christensen as someone struggling with alcohol abuse and dark thoughts who wasn't able to get help.
When he visited the counseling center, Christensen said "I don't want to be this person," according to Pollock.
"He struggled," Pollock said. "And ultimately, he didn't win."
And she directly brought up the sentencing phase, telling the jury that "you have to go into the next phase of the trial," when the "government wants to take his life."
Miller objected to this, as the jury was instructed not to consider possible punishments when deciding Christensen's guilt, and Pollock moved on.
During the sentencing phase, the jury will have to unanimously choose a death sentence; if one juror doesn't think Christensen deserves it, he'll be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
A death sentence is hardly a given.
In the 236 federal capital cases tried since 1988, juries imposed life sentences in 64 percent and death in 36 percent, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.
To convince the jury that Christensen deserves death, the prosecution will first have to prove to all the jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted intentionally.
Then the jury will have to unanimously agree beyond a reasonable doubt that one of "statutory aggravating factors," or reasons for the death penalty, exist.
— That Ms. Zhang died as a result of the kidnapping.
— That Christensen committed the crime in an "especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner," in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse of Ms. Zhang.
— That Christensen committed the crime "after substantial planning and premeditation."
If one of those is unanimously agreed upon, the jury then can consider "non-statutory aggravating factors," which it also has to unanimously agree exist.
These include victim impact, future dangerousness, lack of remorse, vulnerability of the victim and obstruction.
Ms. Zhang's family is expected to testify during the sentencing phase, presumably in regard to victim impact, but Wang said he didn't yet want to say exactly who would be testifying.
The prosecution had previously alleged "other serious acts of violence" as an aggravating factor but has since dropped that after the defense raised serious questions about the allegation.
The defense will then offer its "mitigating factors," or reasons Christensen shouldn't receive the death penalty.
They haven't said yet what those will be, but Christensen's father, who has been attending the trial, is expected to testify.
According to a pretrial order, the defense will have to disclose its mitigating factors within 24 hours of Monday's verdict.
Unlike the prosecutors, the defense doesn't have to unanimously convince the jury that a mitigating factor exists beyond a reasonable doubt.
Each juror can decide on their own whether the factor is more likely than not to exist, and they can also come up with their own.
The defense is also expected to push back on much of the government's aggravating factors.
In the guilt phase, they've challenged anything that would show Christensen planned his kidnapping, such as Hogan's testimony that she was approached by Christensen hours before he kidnapped Ms. Zhang.
Instead, they've argued that Christensen was in a downward spiral and hit rock bottom June 9, 2017, when he was home alone after his wife left town with her new boyfriend.
And they've repeatedly challenged Christensen's claim of 13 victims, which they say shows that the rest of what Christensen said to his girlfriend on the recording can't be trusted, including how he said he tortured and abused Ms. Zhang.
After both sides present their case during the sentencing phase, the jury will again deliberate, weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors.