NOW: Christensen due back in court Wednesday for detention hearing

NOW: Christensen due back in court Wednesday for detention hearing

URBANA – U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long has ordered the man accused of kidnapping Yingying Zhang to be held without bond until his next court hearing, two days from now.

Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign, made his first appearance in a packed courtroom at the federal courthouse in Urbana this morning. 

Wearing a prison jumpsuit and shackled at the ankles, Christensen did not speak during a hearing that lasted nine minutes, other than to acknowledge that he understood his rights.

Long asked Christensen's attorney, Evan Bruno of the Urbana-based Bruno Law Firm, whether he was ready to take a stand on bail.

When Bruno asked for a few days, Long set a detention hearing for 3 p.m. Wednesday. At that time, bond will be determined.

Until then, Christensen will be held in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Talking with reporters outside the courthouse, Bruno said he'd met with his client a few times but "this case is very young and we haven't had a really full opportunity to develop everything yet.”

Bruno emphasized the importance of maintaining a presumption of innocence for his client, adding: “My job is to make sure that happens."

"There's a long road ahead. I encourage everyone to be patient, to keep an open mind, wait 'til the evidence comes in," Bruno said.

If convicted of the federal kidnapping charge, Christensen faces up to life in prison, according to Sharon Paul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

However, in federal kidnapping cases where a death occurs, the penalty is heavier -- either mandatory life or the death penalty, prosecutors said. Under federal law, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decides which penalty federal prosecutors pursue.

A preliminary hearing was set for 10 a.m. on July 14. It would be waived if a grand jury returns an indictment before then.

Ms. Zhang's father was among the 45 people packed into the courtroom, with hundreds more gathered in the courthouse lobby and outside across the street.

“We just want to seek justice,” said Charlie Li, president of the Chinese American Community of Central Illinois, who stood outside, taking part in chants of “Justice for Yingying! Justice for Yingying! Justice for Yingying!” every 15 minutes or so throughout the morning. 

“This is a very special case,” he said. “We are extremely concerned about the safety and security of the Chinese community in Champaign-Urbana.”

Kang Sun, a student affairs administrator at Greenville University, came with his wife, Ruijie Zhao, a Parkland College instructor. They had hoped  to get inside the courtroom but arrived too late.

"We are all here to support Yingying and her family," Sun said. "We are really concerned about what has happened to her and hopefully she can be found."

"What makes this so tragic is that she's so new to the university," Zhao said.

 

UPDATE AT 10 A.M. MONDAY

This morning’s proceeding before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long was moved to a larger courtroom, on the third floor of the federal courthouse, to accommodate members of Ms. Zhang’s and Christensen’s families.
 
By 8:30 a.m. — 90 minutes before the hearing — every seat was accounted for.
 

UPDATE AT 9:30 A.M. MONDAY

Hundreds of people — some carrying signs of support for Yingying Zhang — have descended upon the federal courthouse in Urbana this morning for Brendt Christensen's first appearance.

Since his arrest on kidnapping charges, Christensen, 28, has been in custody at the Macon County Jail.

His first appearance is due to begin at 10 a.m.

More to come throughout the morning.

UPDATE AT 6:30 P.M. SUNDAY

An Urbana man who says he regularly worked out with a group that included the former University of Illinois grad student accused of kidnapping Yingying Zhang described him as “different.”

“He would nearly always come with a woman; I don’t know if she was his wife or his sister,” Jon Bowman said of Brendt Christensen. The two were part of a group of about 12 people who lifted weights at 5 a.m. nearly every day for the last few years at The Refinery in Champaign, Bowman said.

“Most of us who were working out were usually talkative and in a good mood, but Christensen was different,” Bowman said. “He and the woman always wore black, and they kept to themselves. They never said anything to the rest of us.”

Christensen, 28, of Champaign, remains in custody at an unknown location after being arrested Friday on a federal criminal complaint that charges him with Ms. Zhang’s June 9 kidnapping.

Authorities haven’t provided any update on the case since Friday, when the FBI said it believes Ms. Zhang is no longer alive.

Christensen is due to make his initial appearance in federal court in Urbana at 10 a.m. Monday.

On Sunday, The News-Gazette learned that Christensen, 28, attended a Thursday evening walk held by in support of Ms. Zhang outside the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts even as he was under surveillance by police.

A photo circulating on Twitter shows a man resembling Christensen standing next to an unknown woman behind a crowd as the march is about to begin. Asked about the photo, FBI spokesman Brad Ware declined comment.

In a since-disabled profile with Christesen’s name and photo on the dating site OkCupid, he is described as being “married and in an open relationship.”

Also included in the self-summary section: “I’m Brendt. Grad student at UIUC. I’m pretty chill and easy going ... it’s pretty much impossible to make me mad. I want to experience everything and test my limits.

“... I also work out a ton but don’t mind if you don’t. Fitness has been a passion of mine since junior high.”

 

PREVIOUS STORY

As family and friends of Yingying Zhang gathered to show support for the missing Chinese scholar Thursday night, one unlikely participant was among them: the man accused of kidnapping her.

Brendt Christensen, 28, a former University of Illinois physics graduate student arrested Friday night in Zhang's June 9 disappearance, attended the walk outside the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts even as he was under surveillance by authorities, The News-Gazette has learned.

A photo circulating on Twitter shows a man resembling Christensen standing behind a crowd as the march is about to begin. Asked about the photo, FBI spokesman Brad Ware declined to comment.

Christensen's former colleagues in the UI Department of Physics, meanwhile, were struggling Saturday to reconcile their picture of the former graduate student with the suspect described Saturday as "creepy" by one fellow Stonegate Village resident and accused of luring Zhang into his Saturn Astra as she was waiting for a bus June 9 and then holding her hostage in his Champaign apartment.

Zhang has not been found, and authorities said Friday that she is presumed dead.

Christensen, a native of Stevens Point, Wis., does not appear to have a prior criminal history.

"Nothing indicated anything like this," said UI physics Professor Lance Cooper, who supervises the graduate-student program for the department and was fielding questions Saturday on behalf of students and professors there. "It's just stunning.

"Every email that I've gotten has been conveying utter shock. This is something that caught everybody off guard, particularly because we've all been following this story.".

Christensen, who began his studies at the UI after earning a bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin in 2013, received his master's degree in physics from the UI in May and is no longer at the university. He withdrew from the Ph.D. program in May 2016 but wanted to finish his master's before he left campus, Cooper said.

"He was making progress towards a degree. We weren't moving him out of the program. This was his decision," Cooper said.

That happens with a small percentage of Ph.D. students every year, he said. Christensen was a good teacher, Cooper said, so the department agreed.

Christensen hasn't been seen in Loomis Lab or by anyone in the department in recent weeks, Cooper said.

For the past year, he had only been taking courses outside of physics, "looking at different opportunities and options," and had little interaction with other physics students, Cooper said. He declined to provide more specifics or characterize Christensen's academic performance because of federal privacy rules.

He was unsure of Christensen's plans after graduation. Relatives and a former professor in Wisconsin could not be reached for comment.

'Just so sad'

Christensen worked as a teaching assistant for several introductory physics courses for four semesters and one summer and was a research assistant during other semesters, Cooper said. As a teaching assistant, he taught small-group sections of larger lecture courses for physics majors and non-majors, and likely taught more than 100 students over his four years at the UI.

He had also worked with another professor in the department researching "exotic properties of materials," Cooper said, but hadn't done any research for the past year.

Physics is one of the UI's most prestigious departments and has 280 graduate students. Christensen studied condensed-matter physics, the department's biggest program with 24 faculty, annually rated No. 1 or 2 in the country, said physics Professor Kevin Pitts. It's the legacy of the late John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Prize winner.

"That's what we're known for, actually," Pitts said.

"I just don't know how to think about how this kind of thing can ever happen," he said. "Definitely very shocking, and of course just so sad."

About a fifth of the physics graduate students are Chinese, like Zhang, and were particularly hard-hit, Cooper said.

One group came to Loomis Lab's "interaction room" in the early hours Saturday morning, just to share their thoughts, he said.

Graduate student Souvik Dutta enrolled at the same time as Christensen, and the two worked with another student on a class project during their first semester. Christensen would be the one who made sure the group met deadlines and didn't "slack off," Dutta said.

"He was pretty nice. He seemed very smart also," Dutta said.. "There was nothing wrong in any way at all."

Graduate students and others in the department are planning to contribute to some kind of memorial for Zhang, perhaps in conjunction with a fund planned by the College of Engineering, Cooper said.

'It's so far out there'

Zhang had been the subject of an intense search and media coverage since she was last seen June 9.

The story has received enormous attention in China, and Pitts acknowledged it could affect the UI's student enrollment from that country and opportunities for collaboration there. The UI has the most Chinese students of any U.S. university, with more than 5,600.

Pitts hopes it will be viewed as the actions of an individual, "and not in any way related to the larger institution, just because it's so far out there and completely separate, at least in my mind, from what's going on academically on campus."

Pitts said the primary concern is for Zhang and her family, and the safety of UI students.

"We just need to use this as a reminder, first and foremost, to help students think about being safe and being unfortunately very careful and skeptical when they run across people in settings they're not comfortable with," he said.

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