The father of a slain scholar who begged his daughter's killer to reveal what he did with her remains so that they could be returned to China for burial says his family now understands that recovering them may be impossible.
Ronggao Zhang spoke at a news conference in Urbana on Wednesday about his fading hopes of finding the remains of his daughter, Yingying Zhang.
He says one of his lawyers, Steve Beckett, explained that Brendt Christensen told his defense team he had divided Yingying's remains into three garbage bags that he threw into a dumpster before the dumpster's contents were compacted and buried in a landfill.
Beckett says prosecutors provided the information relayed to them by Christensen's attorneys after the former University of Illinois doctoral student was convicted in the 2017 slaying and sentenced to life in prison last month.
The news was first reported last week ahead of a a press conference with Beckett, but that news conference was later postponed.
The U.S. Attorney's office in the Central District of Illinois said Zhang's remains have not been found. A source close to the investigation said the landfill has not been searched.
"An attorney who’s been representing the family is evidently holding a news conference this afternoon in Urbana to discuss information the government provided the family following trial based on statements Christensen made to his attorneys late last year and prior to trial," a spokesperson for the attorney's office said in a statement.
Zhang went missing on June 9, 2017, as she was headed to sign a lease for an off-campus apartment in Urbana.
Christensen, a 30-year-old former doctoral student at the university, was arrested later that month and charged with her kidnapping and murder.
A jury convicted Christensen of all charges in her death after 90 minutes of deliberation in June. The following month, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors and Zhang's family had pushed for the death penalty, but a jury decision on that had to be unanimous. If even one juror opposed, then the life sentence was applied.
Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was prosecuted under federal law.
Prosecutors said Christensen raped, choked and stabbed Zhang before beating her to death with a bat and decapitating her. Christensen has never revealed what he did with Zhang's remains.
Speaking through an interpreter at Christensen's sentencing, Zhang's father appealed to him to reveal where her body is so that the family can take her remains back to China.
"If you have any humanity left in your soul, please end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home," Ronggao Zhang said.
The U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois, John Milhiser, as he spoke, Zhang's mother, Lifeng Ye, sobbed and the woman standing next to her appeared to be holding her upright.
Her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, testified that the family's only hope was that Zhang's body will be found so they can bury her in China. Prosecutors indicated in court filings that Christensen may have destroyed the remains.