PhD candidate sentenced to life in prison for Chinese student's kidnapping, death

By Darryl Coote
Despite Brendt Christensen sentenced to life in prison for her 2017 death, Yingying Zhang's body has yet to be found. Illinois University Police Department/<a href="">Website</a>
Despite Brendt Christensen sentenced to life in prison for her 2017 death, Yingying Zhang's body has yet to be found. Illinois University Police Department/Website

July 19 (UPI) -- A former PhD candidate convicted of kidnapping and killing a Chinese University of Illinois student was sentenced to life in prison after the jury failed to make a unanimous decision, officials said.

U.S. District Judge James E. Shadid on Thursday sentenced Brendt Christensen, 30, to spend the rest of his life in jail without the possibility for release for killing 26-year-old Yingying Zhang in June of 2017, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of Illinois said.


The mandatory life sentence was handed down after the jury was unable to reach a decision regarding the sentencing following two days of deliberation.

"Today, justice has been served and the defendant in this case will be held responsible for his actions and this horrific crime; a crime which he planned and then carried out without regard to the victim," Said Sean Cox, Special Agent in Charge at the FBI Springfield Division. "... Although the verdict and sentencing of the defendant will not lessen the pain of Yingying Zhang's family, it is my sincere hope that it provides some closure to her loved ones."


Christensen was convicted of kidnapping resulting in a death and two counts of lying to investigators late last month during a trial that began June 12.

"For his unthinkable acts, he's being held accountable," U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois John Milhiser said. "He will serve the rest of his life in prison and he will die in prison as he should for these horrendous acts."

Zhang had only been in the United States a month before she went missing. She was last seen June 9, 2017, in security camera footage showing her entering the passenger seat of Christensen's black Saturn Astra as she was running late to sign a lease for an apartment.

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When Christensen was questioned by the FBI during the investigation, he then gave false statements on two separate dates. During a vigil walk June 29 to raise awareness of Zhang's disappearance, he told his then-girlfriend, who recorded the conversation, how he had killed the Chinese student, the U.S. State's Attorney Office said.

Christensen was arrested and charged with Zhang's death the next day.

However, her body has not been found.

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Her father, Ronggao Zhang, asked Christensen Thursday following the verdict to reveal the location of his daughter's body.


"Now that the trial is over and the jury has made its decision, we ask the defendant to unconditionally tell us what he knows about Yingying's location," he said through a translator. "If you have any humanity left in your soul, please help end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home."

He said he didn't agree with the decision to not sentence Christensen to death but that he accepts that he will spend the rest of his life in jail, "which still reflects our loss in a meaningful way."

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Though the state abolished capital punishment in 2011, since Christensen was charged in a federal court he could have been sentenced to death.

"Tragically, a young woman's life was cut short by the evil crimes perpetrated in this case," said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Justice Department's Criminal Division. "The Department of Justice insisted on holding the defendant accountable to the fullest extent of the law, and hopes that today's outcome delivers some measure of justice for Yingying Zhang and her family."

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