Updated: Man sentenced to 46 years for killing girlfriend
URBANA — Yongfei Ci admitted to a Champaign County judge Wednesday that he knew what he was doing last September when he brutally murdered his former girlfriend after terrorizing her in her apartment for hours.
Acknowledging that he had done a "horrible thing," the 30-year-old former University of Illinois mathematics doctoral student asked Judge Heidi Ladd "to see me not through this single act but my life prior to this offense."
In imposing a sentence of 46 years in prison, Ladd apparently did consider Ci's life before he murdered Mengchen Huang, 25, on Sept. 27, 2013.
The veteran jurist and former prosecutor gave Ci four fewer years in prison than the cap that Assistant State's Attorney Steve Ziegler had agreed to when Ci pleaded guilty to Miss Huang's first-degree murder in May.
Miss Huang, a UI doctoral student in Chinese art, was stabbed repeatedly in the throat by Ci in the bedroom of her apartment in the 1300 block of North Lincoln Avenue in Urbana. Her roommate was in a nearby bathroom, hearing the torture. Although Ci threatened to kill her, she was not physically injured.
Police investigation revealed that Ci had meticulously planned the attack for at least a week, even reducing to writing what Ladd described as his "sadistic script."
Arguing for the 50-year sentence, Ziegler said Ci's motivation was about two things: "obsession and control."
"Control of the life of a young woman and his frustration at not being able to control her life," he said.
Ziegler spent several minutes reviewing for Ladd the events in the couple of weeks leading up to Miss Huang's death.
Miss Huang had broken up with Ci in early September while he was at Brown University in Providence, R.I., in a visiting scholar program. Ziegler said Ci continued to send her texts and emails, most of which she declined to answer.
On Sept. 20, he purchased online a pellet gun, which looked like a real gun, and paid extra for next-day shipping. He did the same with two knives. The next day, he bought a mock silencer for the gun, again paying extra for expedited delivery.
"He's in a hurry," Ziegler said.
On Sept. 23, he sent emails to Miss Huang and her current boyfriend asking if they were having sex. He texted her too. "He's taunting her. He's trying to control her." That same day, he bought duct tape and rope from a Wal-Mart in Providence. And on Sept. 24, he made a reservation for Sept. 26 at a Champaign motel.
"This is a very well-planned event. This is not an action of passion, spur of the moment. It was extraordinarily cold and calculated," Ziegler said.
On the afternoon of Sept. 26, he sent Miss Huang texts saying he was ready to accept their breakup and move on, even while he was in a Champaign motel room. He told her he was going to New York City for the weekend and her reply to him — her last — was to urge that he drive safely.
That same night, he stood outside her apartment waiting for an opportunity to go in but decided there were too many people present. He returned on the morning of Sept. 27 and around 8:10 a.m. confronted Miss Huang's roommate as she came out.
Forcing her back inside, he kicked in the door to Miss Huang's bedroom and ordered both women to lie on the floor, where he tied them up. He then moved the roommate to the adjacent bathroom and she watched as Ci beat and cursed the victim and went through her phone and emails looking for communications with the new boyfriend. Asking Miss Huang if she had any last requests, she replied that she wanted him to spare her roommate's life.
"This isn't murder. This is torture," said Ziegler. "In the face of all that, she has the presence of mind to say 'Do not harm my roommate.'"
Ci had shut the bathroom door before he began stabbing Miss Huang in the neck, but the roommate described hearing a "sawing" sound.
"This man is dangerous. He clearly planned to torture and torment the victim before her death," Ziegler said, adding that Ci was also prepared to kill the boyfriend and roommate.
Acknowledging the horrendous nature of the murder, Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum reminded the judge that Ci had no criminal history whatsoever and was in the United States legally from China to further his education.
"What we have here is a good person who has done something horrible," Rosenbaum argued, saying he was unable to answer why the student with a promising future would throw it all away.
But he told Ladd facts about Ci to try to show her another side of the convicted killer. Those included that Ci had been raised by a "demanding" father and an "abusive" stepmother, causing him to suffer from what a psychiatrist labeled an "attachment disorder."
Friends described Ci as "shy but kind" and helpful to others. They were shocked at the news and called his actions "totally out of character," Rosenbaum said.
Ci, who took medication for depression, had recently suffered a major setback in his mathematics research that meant "his dissertation work was falling apart after six or seven years."
And when Miss Huang decided to end their relationship in early September, Rosenbaum said, Ci "wasn't taking it well because she was getting over it quicker."
Ci will have to serve 100 percent of his sentence in an Illinois prison, then faces deportation when it's complete.