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Crime News Final Moments

What Happened to YingYing Zhang? All About Brendt Christensen’s Chilling Confession

A teaching assistant at the University of Illinois gave horrific details as to how he murdered YingYing Zhang just months after she arrived in America to further her education. 

By Jax Miller

The horrific 2017 murder of still-missing YingYing Zhang continues to haunt loved ones on both sides of the world.

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The 26-year-old student from Nanping, part of the Fujian province of southeast China, was the daughter of a truck driver and a woman with less-than-perfect health. Described by her family attorney, Steve Beckett, as a “dutiful daughter,” she strived for academic excellence, having earned a master’s degree in Peking for environmental engineering.

Zhang sent money home even after she found a position as a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“She was really, really into crop production and improving methods of crop production back in China,” Beckett told Final Moments, airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen.

In April 2017, the “happy” student began a one-year position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to further her studies. She was also the frontwoman for a band called Cute Horse, according to journalist Yangyang Cheng of Vice.

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“She is someone who is genuinely very, very kind,” said Cheng. “She has a kind of innocence to her.”

The Disappearance of YingYing Zhang

On June 9, 2017, just two months after arriving in the United States to further her education, Zhang left for a 2:00 p.m. appointment to meet a leasing agent about a potential apartment she considered renting. Beckett said she was “excited” about the opportunity, but then she never arrived.

Her last-ever text was to the agent at 1:39 p.m., claiming she had “trouble with the buses” and would be about 30 minutes late. The agent told Zhang to take her time, texting again at 2:38 p.m. when she was a no-show for the appointment.

Later that evening, Zhang failed to arrive at a planned 7:00 p.m. meeting with her lab mates on campus, which was peculiar to the others and their professor. Professor Jeffrey Brawn wasn’t with the students but was alerted to Zhang’s “unusual” absence, and instructed them to call campus police.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen with a student gone missing,” Brawn told Final Moments. “We were concerned about her; we wanted to know what was going on.”

A timeline of YingYing Zhang’s final moments

Yingying Zhang featured on Final Moments episode 204

In her dorm room, cash and travel documents were left behind, suggesting to campus police that Zhang meant to return.

According to Attorney Beckett, Zhang’s family was “devastated” by her disappearance, and the college community was shaken. F.B.I. Special Agent Anthony Manganaro said campus police worked “tirelessly” over the weekend to find Zhang to no avail, and soon, the F.B.I. was called in to help investigate.

“They had been working almost non-stop the past several days and were, in some ways, exhausted, and in other ways, needing more resources,” Manganaro told Final Moments. “So, when they called, our entire office showed up to help them with what they had on their hands.”

Investigators went to work, and before long, they found a mountain of video evidence from when Zhang took a public bus from the campus for her planned appointment.

Video captured Zhang boarding the bus at 1:35 p.m., smiling as she showed the driver her bus pass. She disembarked 17 minutes later at 1:52 p.m., walking along the sidewalk to a local stop where she planned to catch her bus transfer.

Cameras caught her running to make it, showing that she missed the next bus by a matter of seconds.

Zhang stuck around, presumably hoping to catch the next bus, but then at around 1:59 p.m., a black, four-door sedan was captured pulling up to Zhang. Zhang and the unknown driver spoke for about one minute through the passenger’s side window, and at precisely 2:00 p.m., Zhang got into the car and the car drove away.

Investigators couldn’t glean the vehicle’s license plate, but F.B.I. analysts confirmed the car was a Saturn Astra. Although surveillance videos from nearby captured the car driving around campus, it became harder to track once it headed away from school grounds and into a more residential neighborhood.

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Another student’s run-in with someone claiming to be an undercover cop

Law enforcement raced to learn as much as they could. Meanwhile, campus police received a report from student Emily Hogan, who stated that on the day of Zhang’s disappearance, someone driving a black car approached her, claiming to be an undercover cop and offering her a ride. The woman refused the ride from the stranger, and it lended to the theory that perhaps Zhang had been kidnapped.

“We didn’t know whether other people were at risk or not, whether that person could be out there,” Professor Brawn told Final Moments. “And it might happen again.”

Meanwhile, investigators found nine owners of a black Saturn Astra in Champaign County and followed up with each one. None of them especially stood out, leading them to reexamine the surveillance video.

Then, they found the car seen on camera had a piece broken from one of its hubcaps and a sunroof. Agents cross-referenced the car owners they’d previously visited, finding that only one had a sunroof: 27-year-old Brendt Christensen.

Investigators question Brendt Christensen

According to Zhang’s classmate and university journalist Samantha Boyle, Christensen was someone known around campus, a grad student from the physics department who’d become a teaching assistant.

“He was teaching other students and earning his own degree at the same time,” Boyle told Final Moments. She added he was “generally pretty quiet” and “kept to himself.”

Investigators looked back at Christensen’s statements from when they visited the Astra owners. Christensen claimed he was asleep or playing video games at his Champaign apartment when Zhang disappeared.

Christensen’s wife was out of town for the weekend.

Emily Hogan, the woman who claimed someone tried luring her into his vehicle, “immediately” identified Christensen from a photo lineup as the man who said he was an undercover cop, according to Agent Manganaro.

“Emily Hogan’s experience, her identification of Christensen, showed that he was, in some ways, hunting to try and find a victim,” Manganaro said. “Based on the information we had, we were very confident that Christensen had, in fact, kidnapped Zhang.”

On June 15, 2017, Christensen was arrested at his home.

The investigators’ subsequent interview was taped and published by Final Moments. Christensen said he found Zhang “very distressed” on the side of the road and offered to give her a ride. But when Christensen accidentally made a wrong turn, Zhang reportedly got spooked.

“I’m not gonna keep someone I barely know in my car who doesn’t want to be in there,” Christensen told investigators. “So, I let her out.”

Law enforcement secured a search warrant for Christensen’s car, but they found nothing to directly tie the suspect to Zhang’s disappearance. They then interviewed Christensen’s wife, who said she and Christensen were in an open relationship and that Christensen was dating Terra Bullis.

Law enforcement questions Terra Bullis

Bullis and Christensen met on a dating website earlier in 2017, and Bullis admitted that the pair were involved in a “domineering, submissive-type relationship,” according to Agent Manganaro.

“From Terra’s perspective, it was mutual, and she maintained a great deal of control,” Manganaro told Final Moments. “When we went and talked to Terra, she was very open about the relationship; was very concerned about Yingying, and agreed to help us find out what was going on and if Christensen had any involvement.”

Searches commenced around the city, though Bullis agreed to wear a wire in hopes that Christensen would mention his involvement in Zhang’s disappearance. The chance came on June 29, 2017, when Zhang’s relatives from China and fellow students gathered for a benefit march in Zhang’s name.

Christensen and Bullis walked at the benefit, and what Bullis caught on audio painted a horrifying picture of Zhang’s final moments.

“They have no idea what happened,” Christensen said about those in the surrounding crowd. “Nobody knows what happened. Except me."

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Christensen’s horrifying recount of Zhang’s Final Moments

In audio obtained by Final Moments, Christensen called Zhang “resilient,” saying he found it “supernatural” that she did not die in spite of his attempts to “choke” her to death. At some point, he told Bullis that he tried stepping on her neck to cause Zhang’s death.

Agent Manganaro said Bullis was “very fearful” when secretly recording Christensen, so much so that the recording picked up the sound of her pounding heart as Christensen continued to describe what he did to Zhang.

When Christensen couldn’t kill Zhang, he said he carried her to the bathtub, using a baseball bat to hit her hard enough that it “broke her head open.”

“I wasn’t sure if she was dead or not,” Christensen said in the recorded conversation. “So, I had a knife, stabbed her in the neck, and she grabbed for it.”

Christensen’s confession was enough for investigators to arrest him for YingYing Zhang’s murder despite no sign of a body.

Christensen goes to trial for murder

A search warrant revealed Zhang’s blood on Christensen’s mattress, wall, and floor in his bedroom. However, according to Manganaro, the bathroom had been “tremendously” cleaned, with Christensen hiring professional maintenance workers come in to replace the grout and tub.

D.N.A. found on the baseball bat believed to be used in the attack also matched the victim.

On June 24, 2019, just over two years after Zhang’s disappearance, a jury found Christensen guilty of kidnapping resulting in death. He was sentenced to life in prison.

According to family attorney Steve Beckett, Christensen reportedly told his own lawyers that he dismembered Zhang’s body and disposed of it in a dumpster behind his apartment complex before it wound up in a massive landfill.

Zhang’s body has never been found.

“At the end of the day, this is something that should have never happened,” according to student Samantha Boyle. “YingYing should still be here.”

A memorial fund at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was created in YingYing Zhang’s name.

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