URBANA — A former University of Illinois doctoral student who admitted fatally stabbing his estranged girlfriend in her Urbana apartment last fall could spend most of his life in prison.
Yongfei Ci, 30, whose last known address was in the 500 block of West Elm Street, Urbana, pleaded guilty Friday to the first-degree murder of Mengchen Huang, 25, a UI graduate student from China. Ms. Huang was found dead in her apartment in the One South complex in the 1300 block of North Lincoln Avenue about 11 a.m. Sept. 27.
In court Friday, Assistant State's Attorney Steve Ziegler laid out for Judge Heidi Ladd how Ci, upset over Ms. Huang leaving him for a new boyfriend, planned her murder over the course of several days, then carried it out.
In exchange for Ci's guilty plea, Ziegler agreed to cap his sentencing recommendation at 50 years in prison. Ci faces a maximum of 60 years and will have to serve 100 percent of whatever sentence the judge imposes on June 18.
Ziegler agreed to dismiss other charges of home invasion and aggravated kidnapping against Ci.
The latter charge stemmed from Ci keeping Ms. Huang's roommate confined in a bathroom for a couple of hours as he beat and berated Ms. Huang in a nearby room before stabbing her throat at least six times.
Ci was a student in mathematics and had been taking a course at Brown University in Providence, R.I., at the time of Ms. Huang's death.
According to the facts that Ziegler presented in writing to Ladd, Ci and Ms. Huang, both Chinese citizens attending the UI, had ended their relationship about Sept. 1. Ci moved to Providence around Sept. 5 to participate in a mathematics fellowship program at Brown.
Later that month, Ms. Huang began dating someone else. Cellphone records show Ci continued to call and text Ms. Huang, often with no response.
On Sept. 20, he made online purchases of two knives and a pellet gun, manufactured to look like a semi-automatic gun, and paid extra for next-day shipping. That same day, he bought rope from a store in Providence.
The next day, Ci made on online purchase of a silencer for the gun for $119.95 but paid an extra $58.73 for next-day shipping.
For the next couple of days, he continued to send her e-mails asking about her new boyfriend.
On Sept. 24, he received the knives through UPS and bought duct tape in Providence. He also made a reservation for an extended stay motel in Champaign that day. On Sept. 25, he left Providence in his car and on the way to Urbana, made multiple calls and sent texts to Ms. Huang, indicating that he was going to New York City with friends and that he had come to terms with their relationship having ended.
In response to his text saying he was going to New York, Ms. Huang replied: "Here comes your dream city. Drive carefully."
On Sept. 27, the day of the murder, Ci was seen leaving the Value Place Inn on Anthony Drive in Champaign at 7:10 a.m. carrying a backpack. Video showed a car similar to his entering One South.
That morning, about 8:15 a.m., Ms. Huang's roommate, Xue Yang, came out of their apartment and was confronted by Ci. Using the pellet gun, he forced her back inside.
Ms. Huang's new boyfriend received a text from her phone just before 10 a.m. and a call from her minutes later asking if she could come over. He told her she could.
About 10:38 a.m., a vehicle like Ci's was seen on security video leaving the One South complex and at 10:47 a.m., Ci returned to the Value Place Inn.
Yang, Ms. Huang's roommate, told police that she thought the handgun that Ci confronted her with outside was real. She said he pushed her into Ms. Huang's bedroom, then ordered both women to lie on the floor and covered their mouths with duct tape.
Ci then put Yang in the bathroom connected to Ms. Huang's bedroom and tied Ms. Huang with a rope and beat and cursed at her. He then went through Ms. Huang's cellphone and beat her again.
Yang saw Ci put the silencer on the gun and while holding the knife entered the bathroom. He told Yang, "This is the end of your life. This is your last day."
He then turned back to Ms. Huang, asking if she had any last requests. She asked that he not hurt Yang. Ci then shut the bathroom door so Yang could not see what happened to Ms. Huang but Yang said she heard "sawing or scraping sounds" followed by the sound of someone leaving the apartment.
She then came out of the bathroom and saw her roommate on the floor covered with a blanket and fled the apartment to get help.
An officer found Ms. Huang with her hands and feet tied and the injuries to her throat. A pathologist determined she had suffered six stab wounds which severed her carotid artery and jugular vein.
Acting on Yang's information, police found Ci at the motel about 1:20 p.m. that day.
He admitted he was angry with Ms. Huang for having a new boyfriend, that he bought the gun, knives, rope and tape before leaving Rhode Island, that he put those items in a backpack and went to her apartment, where he waited about 40 minutes before Yang came out.
He also admitted he had Ms. Huang lie on the floor and bound her hands and feet while he looked at her Facebook page and through her phone. Ci also had her call the new boyfriend so that he could confront him.
In a statement to police, Ci said he was upset with Ms. Huang for not answering his calls or messages.
"I was angry, disappointed and thought there would be no chance for us to get back together, so, so I decided to come here and um, and to kill her," he said.
Ziegler said police recovered the weapons from Ci's room at the motel as well as three pages of writing that had been torn up. Written in Chinese and reconstructed, the pages were "essentially a plan to come to Champaign and Urbana to confront the victim, murder the victim and possibly murder the roommate and the boyfriend," he said.