The father of a slain Chinese scholar who begged his daughter’s killer to reveal what he did with her remains said Wednesday that after learning her dismembered body might be in plastic bags buried in a landfill under mounds of garbage, he understood that his family may never get to bury her back home in China.
There is “nothing we want more than to find our daughter and bring her home, (but) we understand that may be impossible,” Ronggao Zhang said through an interpreter at his family lawyer’s Urbana office. As he spoke to reporters, his wife, Lifeng Ye, sat weeping nearby, unable to bring herself to speak after just learning what had happened to the remains of her daughter, Yingying Zhang. The family had shielded her from the gruesome news for weeks, but their attorney said she insisted on knowing.
“We have decided to follow the Chinese custom and create a grave site here in America to honor Yingying’s memory,” said Ronggao Zhang, who had begged his daughter’s killer to reveal what he did with his daughter’s body.
The news conference came days after the family’s lawyer, Steve Beckett, announced that he had learned from Brendt Christensen’s defense team that Yingying’s dismembered body was somewhere in a landfill, giving the family a sliver of hope that it could be found. But Beckett explained in gruesome detail on Wednesday why that might never happen, even suggesting that any remains “could be smaller than a cellphone.”
Christensen, 30, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last month in the June 2017 kidnapping and killing of Yingying Zhang, who was a 26-year-old University of Illinois graduate student who had recently arrived at the school’s flagship Urbana-Champaign campus.
Beckett explained that after Christensen was convicted, prosecutors explained to the Zhang family and their lawyers what Christensen’s attorneys said he told them about what he had done.
“He told them after killing her, he placed her remains in three separate garbage bags,” Beckett said. He said Christensen told his attorneys that he tossed the bags into a dumpster near his apartment before he disposed of her clothes, cellphone and other of her personal items in dumpsters around the area, which is about 120 miles (195 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Sanitation workers emptied the dumpster that purportedly contained the victim’s remains a few days later and took the contents to a landfill in the Danville area, where they were compacted “at least twice” before being taken to a private landfill and covered with least 30 feet (9 meters) of trash. He said that although authorities have a general idea of where the remains might be, recovering them would be expensive and difficult. Such an effort would also be complicated by environmental rules regarding digging at landfills and the fact that the remains have certainly decomposed and are believed to be “very small in size.”
Beckett also pointed out that there is no way to determine if Christensen told the truth about what he did with Zhang’s body.
He said Christensen told his attorneys what he did with the remains last November and the attorneys discussed offering to give the information to prosecutors in exchange for their agreement not to seek the death penalty. However, although prosecutors considered such a plea bargain, they decided against it after determining there was no way of knowing if Christensen was telling the truth if the body could never be found.
Beckett also said the defense attorneys had to know that by making that information public, which the Zhang family desperately wanted, would have alerted jurors deciding whether to spare Christensen’s life that he not only had decapitated her, he had also dismembered her.
“The defense did not want the information about what he did with the body put before the jury. … Treating this young woman as leftover vegetables and throwing her out with the garbage,” Beckett said.
The Zhang family’s attorney from China said he understood the decision by prosecutors not to accept Christensen’s word about what happened without any proof.
“Christensen has lied so many times,” said Zhidong Wang. “… We don’t believe his attorneys have any reason to lie, but at the same time, no one can say what Christensen told his attorneys is true.”
Ronggao Zhang, though, said he was disappointed that prosecutors waited so long to tell his family what Christensen had said.
The U.S. attorney’s office that prosecuted Christensen declined to comment.
Ronggao Zhang said he hopes a memorial to his daughter that would include the burial of her clothing could be built somewhere on campus.
As for Christensen, whom he had begged to “end our torment” by revealing what he did with the body after the trial, the heartbroken father said this: “We hope that he suffers for the rest of his life, as he made Yingying suffer in the last moments of her life.”
Babwin reported from Chicago. Associated Press Legal Affairs Writer Michael Tarm in Chicago also contributed to this report.