The remains of Yingying Zhang, a Chinese scholar at University of Illinois who was murdered in 2017, could be in a landfill in central Illinois, according to multiple reports, though her body has still not been found, authorities say.
Steve Beckett of the Beckett Law Office in Urbana said Friday that Zhang's family learned from prosecutors in the case that her remains could be in a landfill in Vermillion County.
Beckett said the defense team for her killer, Brendt Christensen, disclosed the location of Zhang's body as part of a failed immunity agreement. Beckett planned to address the development at a news conference beginning at 3 p.m. CST, but that news conference was later postponed.
"The Zhang family reports this as information they have received and cannot vouch for its truth," he said in a statement.
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, Ronggao Zhang, 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.