'Finding Yingying': Did Illinois police ever recover the 26-year-old Chinese student's decapitated body?

The documentary film 'Finding Yingying' begins on the cold open of her last message exchange with the manager. This was the last time that anyone ever heard from Yingying


                            'Finding Yingying': Did Illinois police ever recover the 26-year-old Chinese student's decapitated body?
(Kartemquin Films)

Yingying Zhang had been in Champaign, Illinois, for barely six weeks when she went suddenly missing from campus. An optimistic, hardworking student at the University of Illinois, the 26-year-old had recently moved from China to pursue higher education. At noon on June 9, 2017, Yingying was supposed to meet an apartment rental manager to sign a new lease, but she never made it to the meeting.

The documentary film 'Finding Yingying' begins on the cold open of her last message exchange with the manager. This was the last time that anyone ever heard from Yingying. Disappeared from the face of the earth without a trace, volunteers in and around the university started searches. After her father RongGao and aunt Liqin arrived in the US with Yingying's boyfriend Xiaolin, they set out on rallies and marches spreading the word about their daughter.

But did they ever find Yingying? Were they successful in taking her back home as they were so very hopeful of doing? Unfortunately, the answer is no. It would have been too late for them to save Yingying by the time they found out what really happened to her that fateful day.  

During initial investigations, police had found a black Saturn Astra approaching her and then after a minute or two of contemplation, she gets in the car. After that, there is no sighting of Yingying and no one can account for her whereabouts. The owner of the vehicle, Brendt Christensen, is brought in for questioning six days after her disappearance. He can give no alibi saying he stayed at home all day playing video games and made lame, half-baked claims.

With further questioning, he changed his statement and say he "may have picked up a girl". Even though investigators knew that their suspect had committed a crime, there was no way for them to get him to talk and there was no way to prove Brendt's crimes.  

(Kartemquin Films)

In court, however, Brendt's attorneys opened with a shocking statement. Brendt Christensen admitted to killing Yingying, but his lawyers fought against a death sentence. In the docufilm, the devastating ordeal that Yingying had to go through in her last moments is revealed in court by Brendt's lawyers. That day, Brendt went "looking for a victim". Before Yingying, he stopped his car next to another girl and asked her to get in his car, but she refused.

He found Yingying alone at a bus stand sometime later and pretended to be a police officer offering help. According to his own account, he took her to his home while his wife was away for the weekend and held Yingying there against her will. Here, he tortured and sexually assaulted her. He then took her to the bathroom and hit her very hard in the head with a baseball bat.

Yingying didn't give up and was even fighting him off after this, but he took a knife and stabbed her in the neck. He would later say that Yingying "fought more than anyone I knew". 

In court, however, it wasn't revealed how he disposed her body. This news came to them, over two years after Yingying's disappearance when Brendt released it on the condition that police can't use the information to implicate him. Brendt admitted that he proceeded to decapitate her and stuff her body in garbage bags that he dumped just outside his home.

These bags were then taken to a private landfill where, by the time the news was out, her body would be buried under more garbage. And any chance of recovering any remaining bits of her would be too difficult and expensive. 

After waiting for the trial for two years, Yingying's family was hopeful that Brendt would get the death penalty. Even though Brendt admitted in court that he killed Yingying, the verdict did not offer any closure. They had already expressed their distrust in the US justice system and noted how it puts victims at a "disadvantage". The jury was divided 10 by 2 and Christensen instead was sentenced to life in prison. 

'Finding Yingying' will be available in virtual theatres on December 11, 2020.

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