In their anguished search for answers, the parents of a missing university scholar from China traveled to the U.S. for the murder trial of their daughter’s accused killer still not knowing what he’d done with her body.
“Zhang Yingying, where on earth are you?,” wailed the 26-year-old’s mother, Lifeng Ye, outside of her daughter’s apartment in Champaign, Illinois last spring, as recorded for an episode about the case on ABC’s 20/20 airing Friday. (An exclusive clip is above.)
“Every night when I lay in bed my tears keep streaming down my face,” the mother says. “It is really painful.”
An attorney for Zhang’s parents, Steve Beckett, says on the episode: “In their dreams they want their daughter, or they want the remains. They don’t want to give up hope.”
Only after the July 18 conviction of Brendt Christensen for Zhang’s 2017 abduction and murder did her parents learn what he did with the body after he raped, choked, stabbed, beat Zhang with a baseball bat and decapitated her.
According to information given to defense attorneys and relayed July 25 to Zhang’s family after Christensen, 30, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, he placed the cut-up pieces of Zhang’s body into three trash bags, which he tossed into a dumpster behind his apartment in Champaign.
From there, the dumpster’s contents were collected and compacted before winding up in a landfill under additional layers of trash. Investigators “described for us that at this stage, with decomposition and then compaction, the size of the remains could be smaller than a cellphone,” Beckett said at an August news conference, reports WTTW.
That information previously had been kept secret under a prosecution immunity agreement, reported The News-Gazette.
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Zhang had arrived in the U.S. from China as a visiting scholar in April 2017 to do post-graduate research at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. On June 9, 2017, she had texted to say she was running late but on her way to an appointment to sign an apartment lease when she vanished.
Colleagues who could not reach her reported Zhang missing that same day.
Security camera video later showed Zhang accepting a ride from a black Saturn Astra traced to Christensen, a former physics Ph.D. candidate. A female witness who subsequently identified Christensen said that earlier in the day, he’d posed as a police officer and asked her to get into his car to answer questions. That woman had refused and alerted police.
It later was alleged that Christensen had conducted searches about abduction fantasies on a fetish website, according to a criminal complaint obtained by PEOPLE.
Christensen’s arrest on June 30 came one day after he attended a walk to raise awareness about the search for Zhang — and after he confessed in a recording made by his then-girlfriend that he had killed her, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The killer’s father, Mike Christensen, told 20/20 that his son’s crimes may have been averted if counselors at the university to whom his son spoke had taken proper action.
“How can somebody that is like this commit a crime like this?” he says. “Something had to have happened. Something snapped.”
20/20 airs Friday (9 p.m. ET) on ABC.