URBANA — The family of slain University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang acknowledges the near impossibility of her remains ever being found.
However, an attorney working with them said those investigating her death are willing to consider an attempt to recover Ms. Zhang’s remains from a landfill in Danville — assuming they are there.
“They (prosecutors) discussed with us that at this stage, with decomposition and compaction, the size of the remains could be smaller than a cellphone,” Urbana attorney Steve Beckett said.
Appearing at a news conference Wednesday morning at his Urbana office with Ms. Zhang’s family and their Chicago-based Chinese lawyer, Zhidong Wang, Beckett tried to explain for reporters what the family has learned in the wake of the conviction and life sentence for Brendt Christensen.
Beckett said that attorneys for Christensen did not file an appeal, meaning that the case is over and Christensen will spend the rest of his life in a federal prison and that the lawyers for him and the government should be free to talk about the decisions they made in the last two years.
The family, Beckett said, learned in a July 25 meeting with federal prosecutors that Christensen’s attorneys had told the government in November 2018 how he disposed of Ms. Zhang’s body after murdering her on June 9, 2017.
“According to Christensen’s attorneys, Christensen told them that ... he placed her bodily remains in three separate garbage bags. The next day, June 10, 2017, he placed those garbage bags in the dumpster immediately outside his apartment building in Champaign,” Beckett said, reading from a prepared statement.
“On June 12, 2017, he placed Yingying’s clothing, backpack, cellphone, books and other personal items, along with cleaning materials he had used to try to cover up the murder, into a large duffel bag. He then drove around the Champaign-Urbana area and placed the items from the duffel bag in various dumpsters, placing the duffel bag itself in a dumpster at the end.”
Beckett said the government learned that the first pickup of garbage was June 12, 2017 — the same day Christensen put the personal effects in the dumpster and two days after he put the body parts in it.
The contents went to a private landfill in the Danville area, Beckett said.
And before even being transported to Danville, the contents were compacted at least twice.
That two years have passed since then makes the recovery of any remains “complicated and expensive.” It “would require government oversight and the cooperation of the landfill owners, and would have no certainty of success. To date, no search has been undertaken. But, the Zhang family understands that the authorities are still considering an attempt to locate and recover Yinying’s remains,” he said.
Asked if the family was pushing for such an attempt, Beckett said: “The prosecution has indicated the strong desire of the (investigating) agencies to go forward with the search. The family welcomes that.”
But Wang stressed for the approximately three dozen journalists present Wednesday that what the prosecutors know was relayed to them from the lawyers for Christensen.
“Christensen lied so many times. We don’t believe the attorneys lied ... but no one can say for sure that Christensen told his attorneys the truth,” Wang said.
The government first learned the news of where the remains were in November 2018 from Christensen attorneys, who agreed to provide it “under immunity,” in hopes that the government would take the death penalty off the table, Beckett said.
He explained that immunity means that the information and any evidence derived from it could not be used in the criminal trial or sentencing. It was relayed by Christensen’s attorneys to government attorneys, not Christensten to federal agents.
However, Beckett said the defense attorneys maintained that the information they gave prosecutors came from Christensen himself.
Because the information came under immunity, the prosecutors felt bound not to share it with anyone, including the family, even though the immunity was ultimately rejected by government officials because the information could not be verified.In the meantime, the family is working with the UI to add personal effects of their daughter and sister to a memorial garden on South Goodwin Avenue created after her death.
“We have decided to follow Chinese custom and create a gravesite here in America to honor Yingying’s memory,” her father, Ronggao Zhang, said while reading from a brief statement.
“We want to thank everyone for helping to look for Yinying. However, based on what we have been told by the authorities, we think the best thing to do now is to let them look into the feasibility of recovering Yingying’s remains. We now understand that finding her may be impossible,” the elder Zhang said.
It took Zhang about five minutes to deliver his brief remarks as they were translated from English to Chinese for the benefit of Chinese reporters present and Ms. Zhang’s mother and brother.
Lifeng Ye, Beckett revealed, learned only Wednesday morning prior to the news conference the grisly details of what happened to her only daughter’s body. There had been a concerted effort to shield her from that information during the trial and afterward but he said she wanted to be present at the news conference.
At the beginning of the news conference, Ye held her head down, a tissue clutched in her hand covering her sobs. After the prepared statements were read and the questions began, she had to be helped from the crowded room, her sobs audible until she got behind a closed door.
Her son, Xinyang Zhang, had held her hand and rubbed her back lovingly up to that point.
Asked to describe the family’s emotions about the way the information on the remains was handled, Zhang said: “We are really miserable. You see my wife. She cannot control herself when she heard the news.”
Asked when they might return to China, Zhang said they have not make a decision.
“When we find her, we will leave,” he said.