Suspect found guilty in murder of Chinese scholar in Illinois

World Today

FILE – This photo provided by the Macon County Sheriff’s Office in Decatur, Ill., shows Brendt Christensen. Lawyers for Christensen, a former physics student accused of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang, a University of Illinois scholar from China, intend to ask the presiding federal judge to recuse himself in the death penalty case. A two-page filing in central Illinois federal filed Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, doesn’t spell out why Christensen’s attorneys think Judge Colin Stirling Bruce should step aside. (Macon County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)

The verdict in the kidnap and murder of a Chinese scholar: guilty.  A jury in the U.S. state of Illinois took less than two-hours to hand down its decision.

CGTN’S Dan Williams reports how a grainy video of a dented hubcap lead investigators to the suspect.

The last images of Zhang Yingying seen alive. On June 9, 2017, a Friday just after 2pm, the Chinese scholar, was captured on surveillance video getting into this car. A black Saturn Astra.

She was late for an appointment with a property manager. The footage proved to be key for investigators. As Zhang’s family arrived to help with the search, the police and the FBI were already focusing on a suspect. Brendt Christensen.

There were just 18 black Saturn Astra’s in Champaign County. And after closer examination of the footage, investigators noticed the car had a crack in the right passenger side hubcap. Police confirmed that Christensen’s vehicle also had a similar crack and brought him in for questioning.

There, he begins to change his story, first saying that he had picked up an Asian woman on a Saturday. And then admitting he might have mistaken the days.

“Maybe I am getting my days mixed up.”

Following that interview, investigators let Christensen go but they monitored him around the clock. What Christensen did not know, is that his girlfriend, Terra Bullis had agreed to wear a wire for the FBI. In all, Bullis recorded nine conversations with Christensen.

A critical recording occurred on July 29, at a vigil for Zhang, 20 days after she had disappeared. On the tape, Christensen is heard saying that he just wanted to see how many people were at the event “for him.”

“They have no idea what happened,” he said. “I’m the only one.”

He then describes in detail how he kidnapped, raped and then killed Zhang Yingying. How Zhang had fought more than anyone else. “Stronger than any victims I ever had,” Christensen is heard saying. He describes how he ‘broke her head open’ with a baseball bat but that Zhang still fought back.

He then said, he cut off her head. He is heard on the recording laughing as he tells the story. He said on the tape that he will never reveal where Zhang’s body is. Christiansen was arrested the next day. Forensic analysis found DNA in Christensen’s apartment was an overwhelming match to that belonging to Zhang.

There were a number of questions that needed answering as the trial began almost two years later. During opening statements, there was shock as Christensen’s attorney stood up and admitted that his client had killed Zhang.

Later, a recording was played where Christensen was heard boasting that Zhang was his 13th victim. Christensen’s attorneys said their client had been drinking heavily that day, and that he had not killed anyone else. That is of little comfort to Zhang’s family.

They had arrived at the trial hoping that Yingying was somehow still alive. They depart with justice being served but with immeasurable loss and grief.