CHAMPAIGN — Three University of Illinois police investigators who helped track down Yingying Zhang’s killer will be honored this month with the Chancellor’s Medallion, the UI’s highest campus honor.
Sgt. James Carter, Detective Eric Stiverson and telecommunicator Kenny Costa will be recognized Feb. 24 in a ceremony at the I Hotel.
After Ms. Zhang, a visiting scholar from China, went missing June 9, 2017, UI police set up a command center on the second floor of its headquarters and called in the FBI for help.
While watching hours of security-camera footage, Costa traced Ms. Zhang’s path through campus the day she went missing, eventually finding video of her entering a black Saturn Astra.
This development led investigators to believe she was likely kidnapped and focused their efforts on identifying whose Astra it was.
They tried to find a readable license plate, but weren’t able to.
Carter then spotted a crack on the right front hubcap.
“And after reviewing it, I started noticing that there was like a dark spot on the right front hubcap. So I watched it backward, watched it forward, frame by frame,” he told The News-Gazette last year.
Investigators had been interviewing local Astra owners, and an FBI agent recalled seeing a crack on the one owned by Brendt Christensen’s in west Champaign.
They verified the crack matched his car, got a search warrant and made plans to interview him the evening of June 14.
Stiverson would interview him that night along with FBI special agent Anthony Manganaro, eventually getting Christensen to crack.
“We know that you picked her up,” Stiverson told Christensen at one point. “We just want to know why.”
While Christensen didn’t confess, he changed his story and acknowledged that he wasn’t at home playing video games or sleeping.
He said he must have gotten his days mixed up and said he had been driving around campus. And later, he admitted that he did pick up an Asian woman but claimed he dropped her off shortly after.
After about an hour, Christensen asked for a lawyer, and he was taken to the Ford County Jail in Paxton while prosecutors decided whether he broke the law by lying to the FBI.
They decided not to press charges at that point, and instead had his then-girlfriend wear a wire.
Over the next two weeks, she would eventually record him telling her in gruesome detail how he said he killed Ms. Zhang right after attending a campus vigil for the missing woman.
The next day, Christensen was arrested, and in a lengthy trial this summer, Christensen was convicted of kidnapping and killing Ms. Zhang as well as lying to the FBI.
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.
After a jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision to sentence him to death, Christensen was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.
Despite extensive search efforts, investigators have not been able to find Ms. Zhang’s body.
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.
The Chancellor’s Medallion has been awarded just seven times since it was first presented in 1999.
The latest recipients in 2017 were three men who have helped preserve the UI’s history: Maynard Brichford, William Maher and Winton Solberg.