US student who killed Chinese scholar sentenced to life in prison

Ronggao Zhang (L) and Lifeng Ye (2R), the parents of victim Yingying Zhang, leave the federal courthouse in Peoria, Illinois after the first day of sentencing for Brendt Christensen on July 8, 2019

A former graduate student at a US university was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without possibility of release for the kidnapping and gruesome killing of a visiting Chinese scholar.

Brendt Christensen, 30, who did not speak during the hearing, had faced a possible death sentence but his lawyer acknowledged his guilt at the opening of the trial in a bid to escape that punishment.

US District Judge James Shadid, who delivered the sentence, called Christensen's actions "an inexplicable act of violence" and accused him of "fulfilling his self-absorbed and selfish fantasies with no regard... for anyone other than himself," the Chicago Tribune reported.

Christensen kidnapped visiting researcher Zhang Yingying in June 2017 at a bus stop near the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, a small midwestern city surrounded by farmland.

Prosecutors said he lured Zhang into his car before choking her and beating her with a baseball bat, stabbing her, and decapitating her body to dispose of it.

Her body has never been found.

In June, Christensen was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death, as well as two charges of lying to the FBI, which investigated the case.

"Tragically, a young woman's life was cut short by the evil crimes perpetrated in this case," Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said in a statement announcing the sentence.

"The Department of Justice insisted on holding the defendant accountable to the fullest extent of the law, and hopes that today's outcome delivers some measure of justice for Yingying Zhang and her family."

The trial generated enormous interest in the Chinese community in Illinois, and China. Beijing authorities sent consular representatives and the victim's relatives came from China to attend the hearing.

Zhang, who was 26, was visiting the University of Illinois to conduct research. Christensen was a graduate instructor in physics.

After the sentencing, Zhang's father told reporters in Chinese that until his daughter is brought home, "we will not have peace or closure," according to the Tribune.

Christensen was arrested in June 2017 after describing how he had killed Zhang to his then-girlfriend, who recorded the conversation, while they attended a vigil to raise awareness for the search for the missing scholar.