New defense filings seem to shed light on why feds think UI scholar dead

New defense filings seem to shed light on why feds think UI scholar dead

URBANA — Among a flurry of motions filed Friday, lawyers for alleged kidnapper/killer Brendt Christensen said a police dog alerted to the presence of a body in the bathroom of Christensen's apartment during a 2017 search.

The "cadaver sniffing canine" handler's report indicates that the dog "alerted to the presence of cadaver inside of the bathroom along the bottom of the vanity," according to a motion questioning the reliability of the dog's training. "There were no other alerts in the apartment or on the property."

Christensen was arrested June 30, 2017, for the kidnapping resulting in death of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, who was last seen entering Christensen's car on June 9, 2017.

While her body hasn't been found, the FBI presumes her dead.

In another motion, Christensen's lawyers revealed that an FBI biologist will testify that "she identified DNA belonging to alleged victim Y.Z. on swabs taken in Mr. Christensen's bedroom."

The FBI biologist is also expected to testify that "she identified the possible presence of blood in Mr. Christensen's bedroom and bathroom," Christensen's lawyers wrote. "There were positive phenolphthalein reactions on swabs from Mr. Christensen's mattress, the bathroom sink trap, and on the bedroom wall and floor that were not able to be confirmed through additional testing. There were two areas (a piece of carpet and a piece of baseboard) where the presumptive test was confirmed with later testing."

Christensen's lawyers are seeking a hearing concerning the reliability of the DNA and blood testing used.

When federal prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty in January, they cited non-statutory aggravating factors, including that Christensen allegedly obstructed the investigation by "destroying or concealing the victim's remains; and sanitizing the crime scene."

Facing a Friday deadline, Christensen's lawyers filed more than two dozen motions totaling more than 500 pages throughout the day seeking to suppress evidence, dismiss the main charge against their client and declare the federal death penalty unconstitutional.

Many of the motions were similar to ones filed in January before prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty, after which U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce wiped the slate clean of all pending motions and said they would need to be refiled.

The two sides now face a series of deadlines to file various motions and counter-motions leading up to the trial scheduled to begin in April 2019.

In a motion questioning why this case is a federal matter, Christensen's lawyers disclosed more information about his search of abduction fantasies on a fetish website, a detail they say is "overblown, hyperbolic, and misrepresentative of the facts."

"Christensen's membership on FetLife.com was limited to a few logins and a single conversation with a woman about a consensual abduction fantasy," they wrote. "Christensen even put emphasis on signing a consent form such that no one could possibly misconstrue the voluntary nature of the encounter, which never in fact occurred."

His interest stemmed from a "budding relationship with a woman" starting that April that was "a consensual dominant/submissive relationship," they argue. Christensen and his wife "had agreed to an 'open' marriage."

Christensen visited FetLife.com briefly on only three different dates in April, his lawyers argue, visiting the "Abduction 101" page for seven seconds, then 20 minutes later for seven minutes, then one week later for eight minutes. His lawyers say his visits to the "Abduction 101" page were part of his "evolving consensual relationship."

"For instance, the initial visit to the 'Abduction 101' page ... is immediately followed by visiting four pages dealing with consensual abductions," they write.

His lawyers also say his searches for information on serial killers is "indistinguishable from the behavior of millions of other Americans who happen to explore a passing interest in a common topic of fascination."

He searched Google three times that April for information related to serial killers and visited two Wikipedia websites about them, according to the defense's motion, and that February, he downloaded an academic paper about serial killers.

All this indicates, Christensen's lawyers argue, that his phone wasn't used "to commit the kidnapping or in furtherance thereof," and therefore, federal prosecutors can't claim jurisdiction.

Prosecutors have argued that Christensen's phone was an instrument of interstate commerce used in committing the alleged crime.

Christensen is represented by assistant federal defenders Elisabeth Pollock and George Taseff, as well as attorneys Robert Tucker and Julie Brain.

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