Scene in court too much for mother of missing UI scholar

Scene in court too much for mother of missing UI scholar

URBANA — The man accused of kidnapping visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang pleaded not guilty Wednesday to additional and more serious charges filed against him last week by federal authorities.

Brendt A. Christensen, 28, was already facing a kidnapping charge in connection with Ms. Zhang’s disappearance in June. On Oct. 3, he was further charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of Ms. Zhang and of lying to federal agents.

Ms. Zhang’s mother, who traveled here from China, was in the courtroom for Wednesday’s hearing. Upon seeing Christensen, Lifeng Ye burst into tears and was helped out of the courtroom before U.S. District Court Judge Eric Long began a hearing that lasted about 20 minutes.

The additional charges filed were the result of a “superseding indictment” returned by a grand jury in Springfield.

The new indictment alleged that Christensen intentionally killed Ms. Zhang in “an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse” and that her death occurred “after substantial planning and premeditation.”

Christensen faces the death penalty or mandatory life in prison if he’s convicted of kidnapping resulting in death.

He was originally arrested June 30 and indicted on a single kidnapping charge in July.

Ms. Zhang, 26, was last seen June 9 near a bus stop on the University of Illinois campus near the intersection of Goodwin Avenue and Clark Street in Urbana.

Security footage from a nearby parking garage showed the missing Chinese scholar standing on Goodwin, then getting into a black Saturn Astra allegedly driven by Christensen.

Long said the trial date would remain Feb. 27, as previously scheduled.

Asked by the judge Wednesday whether he was taking any medication while in federal custody at the Macon County Jail, Christensen answered in the affirmative, telling Long he was taking anti-depression and anti-anxiety medication.

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