URBANA — Two of the University of Illinois police officers who helped crack the case against Yingying Zhang’s killer spoke with media Thursday for the first time.
Five days after Ms. Zhang was last seen in the summer of 2017 on surveillance entering a black Saturn Astra, Sgt. James Carter spotted a crack in the hubcap that investigators later matched with Brendt Christensen’s car.
But at first, he didn’t realize there was a match.
“I looked at it and was like yeah there’s a chip in it, and I passed the information” on and went home, Carter said.
He only realized later that evening how important the hubcap crack was when Detective Eric Stiverson texted him that it had led to Christensen.
After verifying a match, investigators searched his car and apartment that night, and he was interviewed at the local FBI office by FBI Special Agent Anthony Manganaro and Stiverson.
“I was kind of excited and scared because we really didn’t have a whole lot of facts to go with into the interview,” Stiverson said. “I’m trying to think, how am I going to get this guy to confess that he picked her up, and at that point I didn’t really know what he did to her. I hoped she was still alive.”
After initially sticking to his story that he was at home playing video games or sleeping the day Ms. Zhang went missing, Stiverson eventually got Christensen to crack and admit he had been driving around campus and picked up an Asian woman, though he claimed he later dropped her off.
He was arrested about two weeks later, a day after he attended a campus vigil for Ms. Zhang where he described in gruesome detail to his then-girlfriend, who was wearing a wire for the FBI, how he said he kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang.
In a lengthy trial this summer, Christensen was convicted of kidnapping and killing Ms. Zhang, as well as lying to the FBI, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.
Ms. Zhang was a visiting UI scholar from China who had arrived a few weeks earlier to study photosynthesis in corn and soybeans. She hoped to receive her doctorate at the UI and become a professor back in China.
Stiverson and Carter said in the weeks after she went missing, they worked tirelessly to find Ms. Zhang, following leads, canvassing for surveillance footage and listening to his jail calls.
Despite these search efforts, her body still hasn’t been found.
Under an immunity agreement, Christensen told his lawyers that he put her body in separate garbage bags and placed those in dumpsters outside his apartment.
If true, those garbage bags would’ve been taken to a landfill in Vermilion County, where they would’ve been compacted at least twice.
For the full story, pick up Sunday’s edition of The News-Gazette.