Missing Chinese Scholar

Family members try to console Lifeng Ye, the mother of slain University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, as they address the media after a jury found Brendt Christensen guilty of her murder Monday outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Peoria.

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CHAMPAIGN — Brendt Christensen may have offered to tell prosecutors everything he knew about the location of Yingying Zhang’s body, but that didn’t mean her remains would be discovered, according to her family.

In a statement released Wednesday by their Chicago lawyer, Zhidong Wang, Ms. Zhang’s family members said they were aware of Christensen’s offer, but were skeptical the information would help find Ms. Zhang, a visiting University of Illinois scholar from China.

“We asked that the prosecution obtain truthful information about the whereabouts of remains, that the remains be located and we be allowed to return them to China,” the family said in a statement. “We were told that the response to our request by the defendant was that it was not possible to verify any claim the defendant would make. There was no promise that Yingying’s remains would be discovered.”

A day after Christensen was convicted Monday of kidnapping and killing Ms. Zhang in June 2017, his lawyers revealed in a motion that was briefly publicly available on the court’s online docket that Christensen had offered to plead guilty and “provide all information in his possession regarding the crime and the location of the victim’s remains.”

The offer came within six months of his arrest, according to his attorneys.

In exchange, they said he would have accepted a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.

The defense’s filing didn’t say how prosecutors responded, but Ms. Zhang’s family was skeptical of the proposal.

“We were leery of Defendant’s claims because he had lied so many times in the past,” the family said in their statement.

In addition to his conviction for killing Ms. Zhang, Christensen was found guilty on two counts of lying to the FBI about what he was doing the day she went missing and, later, where he took her.

He now faces life in prison or the death penalty in a weeklong sentencing hearing scheduled to begin on July 8.

The question of Ms. Zhang’s whereabouts was raised on several occasions during the first phase of Christensen’s trial.

A day before he was arrested June 30, 2017, he told his girlfriend in a wire recording that he would never tell anyone what he did with Ms. Zhang’s body.

“I won’t tell you where she is. I won’t tell anyone,” he said. “They will never find her.”

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.

Ms. Zhang’s family is “going to leave empty-handed,” Christensen boasted to his girlfriend. “No one will ever know where she is. ... She’s gone forever.”

But he did tell her in graphic detail how he says he killed Ms. Zhang on June 9, 2017, after she entered his car near a bus stop on campus. That recording was played twice during the trial.

“Nothing has ever stopped the Defendant from pleading guilty,” the family said in their statement. “Yet, the family sat through a trial where the horrible details of Yingying’s death have been publicly disclosed.”

The defense revealed the plea offer late Tuesday in a motion to prevent inaccurate claims by Ms. Zhang’s family from being made during the sentencing hearing, when some members of her relatives are expected to testify.

Christensen’s offer presumably would have come as the prosecutors were considering whether to seek the death penalty, a punishment that is banned in Illinois but still available in federal cases such as this.

Prosecutors had indicated since at least September 2017, three months after Christensen was arrested, that he could face a death penalty-eligible charge.

After a superseding indictment was returned the next month, the U.S. Justice Department began reviewing whether to seek the death penalty, considering the recommendation of the local U.S. attorney, input from Ms. Zhang’s family and a submission from the defense attorneys.

And on Jan. 19, 2018, federal prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty, a decision that was ultimately approved by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The prosecutors can’t comment during the trial, but the family said in their statement they respect how the plea offer was handled.

“We have no control over this process,” the statement said. “We have shared our views with the prosecutors and respect the decisions that have been made.”

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).