Yingying Zhang's family to give $20K to people who helped convict her killer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The parents of a University of Illinois scholar from China who was abducted and killed two years ago are giving at least $20,000 to people who provided authorities with crucial information that led to the arrest and conviction of their daughter's killer.

The money will come from a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $161,000 from more than 3,500 people since Yingying Zhang disappeared in June 2017, The Champaign News-Gazette reported. According to a campaign update, part of that money will help to pay for the family's "final U.S. expenses." Another $30,000 will be used as an endowment through the University of Illinois Foundation called "Yingying's fund" to help support international students and their families in crisis.

Steven Beckett, an attorney for the Zhang family, declined to say Monday who would receive reward money or how it might be divided up. But during the course of the investigation into Zhang's 2017 killing and the trial of former University of Illinois doctoral student Brendt Christenen, which ended in June, the names of two possible recipients emerged: Terra Bullis and Emily Hogan.

Perhaps the most riveting evidence was provided by Bullis, Christensen's ex-girlfriend. During the trial, she testified that she wore a wire for the FBI, jurors heard recorded conversations in which Christensen told Bullis in gruesome detail how he killed the 26-year-old Zhang, explaining how he raped and beat her to death.

Hogan testified about being approached by Christensen on the same day he offered Zhang a ride and then kidnapped her. She said after she refused to get into Christensen's car she called police and then later identified Christensen in a photo lineup.

After the federal trial, in which Christensen was convicted of killing Zhang and sentenced to life in prison, Beckett and another attorney for the Zhang family, Zhidong Wang, issued a statement in which they praised Bullis and Hogan.

"Terra's courage is self-evident, and the assistance she gave to law enforcement was invaluable," they said. "Emily's willingness to come forward and testify about the defendant's conduct toward her was also a key part of the case."

Even the judge was impressed, praising the women as being among the many "heroes" who helped authorities capture and convict Christensen, noting in particular the willingness of Bullis to wear a wire for the FBI.

Bullis showed "more courage than the defendant could ever muster to help law enforcement bring him to this day of judgment and spoiling the defendant's goal of getting away with murder," said U.S. District Judge James Shadid.

Although Beckett declined to say how the reward money would be dispersed, the GoFundMe campaign left open the possibility that there could be more than one $20,000 reward. And the president of the area Crime Stoppers, which helped publicize the reward, said the decision about who gets the money and how many rewards should be distributed will be left up the family.

"We were pleased to try to be responsive to their needs, but as far as amounts and who's going to get paid, that's their decision entirely, and rightly so," John Hecker said. "It's their money, and they should be making that decision."

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