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Yingying Zhang's Family Told Her Body Likely In Landfill Near Danville, But 'May Be Impossible' To Recover

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The family of slain Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang said Wednesday they now know where her body might have been dumped, but that it might be impossible to find her remains more than two years after her brutal murder.

Zhang family attorney Steve Beckett said, based on information provided by federal prosecutors and attorneys for convicted killer Brendt Christensen, her body likely was taken to a landfill near Danville, Illinois, after Christensen placed her remains in three garbage bags and tossed them in a dumpster.

Christensen was convicted of kidnapping and killing Zhang at trial in June, and later was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

Beckett said Christensen's defense attorneys told federal prosecutors what he did with Zhang's body in November 2018, but the information was provided under a grant of immunity, so prosecutors could not disclose the information to anyone until after the trial.

Federal prosecutors have said Christensen posed as an undercover officer to lure Zhang, 26, into his car on June 9, 2017. He then took her to his apartment, where he raped, choked, and stabbed her in his bedroom; then dragged her into the bathroom, and beat her to death with a baseball bat before decapitating her.

Christensen's defense attorneys admitted at trial that he killed Zhang, and focused on convincing the jury to spare him from the death penalty.

Beckett said, after the trial, Zhang's family met with federal prosecutors on July 25, and were told what Christensen's defense attorneys had revealed about what he did with Zhang's remains.

Christensen's attorneys told prosecutors that the day after he killed Zhang, Christensen placed her body in three garbage bags, and put the bags in the dumpster outside his apartment building, Beckett said. Two days later, he put her personal belongings – including her clothes, backpack, cell phone, and books – into a duffel bag, and drove around the Champaign-Urbana area, throwing them in various dumpsters.

Zhang's father, Ronggao Zhang, said if the information Christensen gave prosecutors is true "it further confirms that he is a heartless and evil person."

"We condemn his brutal and malicious actions and we hope that he suffers for the rest of his life as he made Yingying suffer in the final moments of her life," he said through an interpreter.

According to Beckett, a follow-up investigation determined the dumpster where Christensen placed Yingying Zhang's body was picked up three days after her murder, and the contents were taken to a private landfill near Danville, where they were compacted at least twice. Since then, they've likely been covered by at least 30 feet of landfill.

"Due to the compaction process, Yingying's bodily remains may be very, very small in size," Beckett said.

Yingying Zhang
Yingying Zhang (FBI)

Given the size of the landfill, the amount of time that has passed, and the amount of additional garbage since dumped in the landfill, Beckett said any attempt to find the body would be very costly.

"It is evident that any attempt to recover Yingying's remains would be complicated and expensive, would require government oversight and the cooperation of the landfill owners, and would have no certainty of success," he said.

Zhang's father said if his daughter's remains are ever found, her family plans to take her body back to China.

"There is nothing in the world that we want more than to find our daughter and bring her home. We now understand that finding her may be impossible," he said.

The family also said they are working with the University of Illinois to create a gravesite in her memory.

"We hope it will be a solemn place of reflection to all who visit, a place to remember the joy Yingying brought to her family and to everyone she met during her life," her father said.

Beckett said, so far, no search has begun at the landfill for Zhang's body.

Zhang's family said they believe the best thing to do at this point is allow federal, state, and local authorities to determine the feasibility of recovering her body.

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