"Fading into nothingness is the default for most people. You want to know what terrifies me. It's that. I will not fade away. I refuse. I don't care how I will be remembered, just that I am: good, bad, revered, infamous; I don't care. Think back over the past 2000 years , who do you know? The people who pushed the limits and those who supported them. Fading into nothingness is not an option. I would rather destroy humanity than let that happen; I know most would disagree."
It was the 9th of June 2017. A Friday. Twenty six year old Yingying Zhang was on her way to meet a manager of an apartment complex so that she could view an apartment. Yingying was from Nanping in China and moved to the US in April 2017 to further her education. It was a big move for her. She had never been to the US before and had never been outside China. In China, she lived with her parents and younger brother. Yingying had her life mapped out. She was engaged to Xiaolin Hou and planned to marry him in October 2017 when she returned to China.
After Yingying obtained her degree in China, she was invited to Illinois by the University of Illinois to visit as a scholar in order to continue her research into crop sciences studying photosynthesis in soybeans and corn. She hoped to get a doctorate degree and then move back to China to teach.
When she arrived at the University of Illinois, she moved into an apartment on campus and lived alone and she wanted to move to a different apartment on another side of the campus to get lower rent and a roommate. It was the perfect time to view apartments as many students were moving, some had finished classes and others went home for the summer vacation.
Due to that, that day, the 9th of June, there were only a few students still on campus. That morning, Yingying did a bit of work before returning to her apartment for lunch. She had arranged to meet Rontrez Stone as he was the marketing manager for One North apartment block where she hoped to get a new apartment. At 1.30pm, Yingying sent a text message to Rontrez to notify him that she was running late and would meet him at 2.10pm. Five minutes after she sent that text, she left her apartment and got on the Teal line MTD bus. She didn't drive so decided to get the bus from the south side to the north side of the campus.
The bus went from Orchard Downs where she lived on campus to the intersection of Springfield and Mathews Street. Yingying got off there to catch a connection to the 22 Limited which would take her to One North. But, when she got off the bus, she was on the north side of Springfield instead of the south side where the connection bus was so she missed it. Yingying saw the bus, waved at it and she even ran after it to try to catch up with it but it didn't stop. She ran after it to the next block but the bus did not stop. So Yingying went to the next bus stop at Clark and Goodwin Avenue to wait for the next bus.
At 2.10pm, Rontrez waited for Yingying but there was no sign of her so he contacted her but received no reply. Later that day, her Professors were looking for her and couldn't find her either. Professor Guan reported her missing to police.
As Yingying was last seen on campus, police obtained all the CCTV footage from the area. They saw Yingying running after the bus and then waiting at the bus stop. But, before Yingying had a chance to get the bus, she got into a black Saturn Astra that pulled up alongside her. Who was driving that car? Police could not ascertain what the license plate number was and could not see who was driving the car. But, they did discover that there were only twenty six of that specific car in Champaign County and only eighteen of those twenty six cars had a hatchback, which the car seen on CCTV had. So that limited the number of people police had to track down.
On the Monday, three days after Yingying was last seen, police spoke to the owners of the cars. One man they spoke to was twenty nine year old Brendt Christensen. Brendt lived with his wife Michelle Zortman. Brendt had attended the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point , University of Wisconsin at Madison and was accepted into the University of Illinois doctorate program in physics. He told police that his wife was away that weekend, the weekend of June 9th, and when asked where he was between 2pm and 3pm on the Friday, he told police that he could not remember. Brendt gave police permission to search both his car and apartment and as police did not find anything, they left.
The FBI and police continued to look for Yingying and when viewing the CCTV footage, they noticed there was a defect in the front hubcap of the Saturn Astra and that it had a sunroof. They recalled that Brendt's car had a sunroof. On the Wednesday, the 14th of June, they got a warrant and seized his car and computer. Brendt agreed to assist with the investigation and went to the police station with them.
At the station, Brendt said that on the Friday, he played video games all day. But the FBI informed him that they knew he picked a girl up. At that point, Brendt's demeanor changed and he began shaking. He said that he may have mixed up the days and if so, he did pick up a girl but did not think it was Yingying. Brendt told them that the girl he gave a lift to was distressed and spoke in broken English. She wanted a lift to a place a few blocks north of where they were. Brendt claimed that he gave her a lift but when he took a wrong turn, she freaked out and got out of the car and he had no idea where she went after that.
When Brendt's apartment was searched, three stains were found on his mattress and luminal revealed there was a further stain on a baseball bat. They were sent off for DNA testing. Police discovered that even though Brendt was married to Michelle, he had a girlfriend, Terra Bullis, and they asked her to record him. She did. Based on that recording and the search of the apartment, Brendt was charged with kidnapping resulting in Yingying's death and making false statements to the FBI. Even though the FBI believed Yingying was dead, they had no idea where her remains were.
It was the Prosecution's case that Brendt was a smart, high achiever up until December 2016. At that point, he began to live a double life. It was their case that in December 2016, Brendt developed an unhealthy obsession with serial killers and Ted Bundy in particular. He had a particular interest also in the book "American Psycho", which features a main character who leads a double life as a serial killer.
It was the Prosecution's case that Brendt began to plan a murder in the Spring of 2017. They submitted evidence in relation to his phone searches for serial killers and images of women in bondage that he had downloaded. He visited websites that discussed kidnapping and abductions and looked up consensual abductions.
It was the Prosecution's case that by the 9th of June, his marriage was all but over, he had dropped out of his doctorate and he was drinking heavily and taking prescription drugs.
The Jury heard how his marriage was in trouble and Brendt and Michelle decided to have an open marriage. She had a boyfriend and he had a girlfriend. He went to see a counselor in March 2017 in relation to his marriage breaking down and it was at that session where he revealed that he was having some dark and troubled thoughts. He admitted he thought about abducting and killing someone. His thoughts were more like plans though as he knew how he would do it and the type of victim he would select. But he claimed that he no longer had those thoughts.
It was the Prosecution's case that this was a lie. In fact, they argued, that on the 9th of June he set out with the intention of making his fantasy and his thoughts a reality. The Court heard that Michelle left the apartment early the morning of the 9th of April to go away for the weekend with her boyfriend. Brendt went to Schnucks grocery store close to his apartment before 8am. He purchased a bottle of Admiral Nelson's spiced rum.
Brendt drove around the campus and at 9.30am, he pulled up alongside a graduate student called Emily Hogan as she walked towards a bus stop. He told her that he was an undercover police officer and showed her a badge. Brendt asked her if she was willing to answer a few questions. She said that she was. But when she was beside the car door, he asked her if she would get inside the car. She said no and he told her to call the police if she saw anything suspicious and drove off. Emily was suspicious. She was suspicious of Brendt. So much so, that she called the police and put a warning on Facebook to other students to be aware of a man driving around pretending to be a police officer.
At 1.30pm that day, Brendt drove around the campus again. He saw Yingying running after the bus when he was driving in the opposite direction. He turned around and pulled up alongside her when she was at the bus stop. Yingying got into the car and that was the last time she was seen alive.
Yingying's iPhone was disabled at 2.28pm.
The Court heard that Brendt described what happened to Yingying to his girlfriend Terra in the recording she took without his knowledge. After Yingying was reported missing and after Brendt was questioned in relation to her disappearance, Brendt went with Terra to a memorial walk that had been arranged for Yingying. That took place on the 29th of June. That was when Terra recorded their conversation.
Brendt told Terra that Yingying had fought hard for her life. Brendt described her efforts as valiant and said it was "supernatural almost how she just didn't give up." He described how he kidnapped and killed her. He said that he bound her hands and took her to his apartment and into his bedroom where he raped her. He cut her clothes off and started doing stuff to her but got bored. He described in great detail how he choked her for ten minutes.
Brendt said that he split her head open with the baseball bat when he hit her as hard as he could after he carried her into the bathroom and put her in the bathtub. Brendt stabbed her, Yingying grabbed the knife and he used it to decapitate her. He wanted to ensure she was dead.
The Court heard that Brendt cleaned the apartment after he murdered Yingying. On the Sunday, the 11th of June, he purchased Drano and Swiffer pads. He got rid of Yingying's clothes, backpack and her remains. He told Terra that she was gone and would never be found.
On the same recording, Brendt claimed that Yingying was not his first victim and he started killing women when he was just nineteen years old and she was his 13th victim. He told Terra that his victim count is "bigger than Jeffrey Dahmer , bigger than John Wayne Gacy." But despite police and the FBI investigating his claims, there is no evidence that Brendt killed before.
The Court heard that despite Brendt cleaning the apartment, he didn't clean it thoroughly enough and Yingying's blood was found on the mattress, the baseball bat, on the baseboard of the bed, on the drywall and underneath the carpet in the bedroom.
The Prosecution asked the Jury to find him guilty. They were seeking the death penalty as it was their case that he planned the kidnapping. They referred to the thoughts he revealed to the counselor, his interaction with Emily, the recording Terra took of him talking and his activity on a website called Fetlife. A woman on the website had an abduction fantasy and he told her he would kidnap and rape her. He said that he would bind, gag and put her in a large duffle bag and place the bag in the trunk of his car so no one could see her. Just three days before Yingying went missing, on the 6th of June, UPS delivered a 6 feet long, 2 feet high and wide large green duffle bag that Brendt had ordered from Amazon to his apartment.
Yingying with her parents
It was the Defense's case that the fact that Brendt was responsible for Yingying's death was not in dispute. In their opening statement, they were clear. Brendt killed Yingying. But it was their case, that the Prosecution's case didn't reveal the full version of events and Brendt's state of mind and they wanted to present that to the Jury as the Trial was a Trial for Brendt's life. They argued that he should not get the death penalty.
The Defense referred to Brendt's state of mind. They asked the Jury to consider it in their deliberations. They told the Jury that Brendt was drinking heavily and mixing it with Vicodin and was having dark thoughts. He went from getting all As in the first three semesters at University to all Fs in the fourth one. His life was falling apart. He loved his wife Michelle but she met someone else, Ryan Vella, and wanted a divorce.
The Defense told the Court that Michelle was the only real friend he had when they moved to Champaign. Michelle had given him an ultimatum to stop drinking or she would leave and within days of that threat, he went to counseling. When asked by the counselor why he was there , he said that alcohol and drugs were ruining his life and he was having thoughts of harming himself and others and needed help. They booked him in for a second session on the 30th of March which he attended but he was just referred to a a local addiction treatment center instead.
When his wife met Ryan, he looked for women online and found Terra via the website OK Cupid. She introduced him to the world of BDSM.
The week of June 5th, the Jury heard, was the beginning of the end for Brendt. Michelle told him she was going away for the weekend with Ryan. They were going to Wisconsin Dells. That was the same place where Brendt and Michelle went for their honeymoon. She left the morning of the 9th at 2am and Brendt contacted Terra who told him that she was having sex with another man and could not speak to him.
They presented testimony from his family and friends who painted a picture of a highly intelligent man who seemingly once had the world at his feet but over a period of a few months , his entire life changed and he frequently spoke of being a failure. The Defense focused on his struggles with mental illness. The Mental Illness Defense however was withdrawn before the Trial began.
The Defense pleaded with the Jury to see that Yingying's murder was one incident in Brendt's life, albeit a terrible one, in a life that had otherwise been positive and full of promise. They urged them to spare his life.
The Jury found Brendt guilty of kidnapping and making false statements to the FBI. They could not however reach a unanimous verdict on the death penalty. As such, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in federal prison “without release.”
U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid told Brendt that the Jury’s verdict is in effect:
“a death sentence, but a natural death as opposed to the death you imposed on Yingying Zhang.”
The circumstances and the Trial itself was a harrowing experience for Yingying's family. Not only did their only daughter go missing so far from home and was brutally assaulted , raped and murdered, they still do not know where she is. Her remains have not been found.
Yingying's mother, Lifeng Ye, demanded that Brendt tell her what he did with her daughter at a pre Trial hearing but he refused to. It was too much for her and she could not attend the Trial on a regular basis. After Brendt was sentenced, and as the family stood outside the Court, Lifeng Ye could not stand unaided. She was supported by a relative. The toll of the brutality inflicted on her daughter and on her family was just too much to bear. The grief was palpable. Yingying's family just wanted to know where Yingying is. They want to bring her home to China.
In November 2018, Brendt revealed that he put Yingying's dismembered body into three garbage bags and threw them in the dumpster outside his apartment. The contents of the dumpster was collected and went to a landfill in Vermilion County. Due to the scale of the search that would be required, her remains may never be discovered. The area is 50 yards wide and was covered with at least 30 feet of garbage.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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