URBANA — The former University of Illinois graduate student indicted for kidnapping a visiting Chinese scholar who remains missing had his trial set for federal court in about two months.
But given that the attorneys for Brendt Christensen, 28, have yet to see even a single report outlining the evidence that their client had anything to do with the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, it's certain he won't be tried Sept. 12.
And there will be no admission of any wrongdoing by Christensen prior to that, despite seemingly damning evidence made public by federal authorities to date.
"There will not be a plea deal in my mind as we sit here right now," Urbana attorney Tony Bruno told a throng of reporters Thursday outside the federal courthouse in Urbana, moments after his client had been arraigned on an indictment returned by a federal grand jury July 12.
As Bruno made a seemingly impromptu statement about the sanctity of the American judicial process, answered questions and handed out business cards, Ms. Zhang's father, boyfriend and aunt were upstairs meeting with representatives of the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI.
Accompanying them was Jun Liu, deputy consul general to the Chinese consulate in Chicago.
"We are here to offer comfort and to witness the court hearing," Liu told The News-Gazette. "We wish Yingying could be found as soon as possible, and we wish the FBI, the Illinois State Police and the University of Illinois police to step up efforts in the search."
"Every moment is gut-wrenching" for the family, said Liu, adding that he's in frequent contact with the FBI office in Chicago.
Family members have said they will not return home to Nanping in southeastern China until Ms. Zhang is found.
The kidnapping charge against Christensen came a month after the 26-year-old scholar, who was working with faculty in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, was reported missing.
Christensen was arrested on June 30 and has since been held without bond in jail in Decatur, where the U.S. Marshals Service houses its prisoners.
In a hearing that lasted four minutes and 15 seconds, U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long first asked Christensen questions to make sure he understood what was happening.
Those included his name, age, level of education, if he has difficulty reading, if he is under the care of a physician or psychiatrist, if he had consumed alcohol recently, or if he is using medication.
Christensen told the judge he's 28, has a master's degree, has no problem reading, and is currently taking an anti-depressant but said that did not affect his ability to understand what was happening.
Bruno, who sat to the right of his client, then read along with Christensen from a copy of the indictment as Long read it aloud.
Asked if he understood, Christensen said "yes."
It includes the language "willfully and unlawfully seized, confined, inveigled, decoyed, kidnapped, abducted, and carried away (Ms. Zhang) for his own benefit and purpose ..." using a car and a cellphone, both instruments of interstate commerce that give the federal authorities jurisdiction.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres told Long the potential penalty for conviction of kidnapping is up to life in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, a period of parole after release of up to five years, and a $100 special assessment.
"We've reviewed and discussed the indictment," Bruno told the judge. "The defendant pleads not guilty and requests a trial by jury."
Long then set a pretrial date of Aug. 28 and a trial date of Sept. 12 before sending Christensen, who was wearing his black-and-gray striped jail jumpsuit and was shackled at the ankles, back with the three security officers who brought him in the courtroom.
Prosecutor: 'No change'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller, who supervises prosecutors in Urbana, appeared with Freres.
"There has been no change," Miller said when asked if the government still presumes Ms. Zhang dead.
Long's courtroom was packed with observers. Many were reporters; some were curious courthouse employees who sat in the jury box.
Watching from the gallery were Ms. Zhang's father, Ronggao Zhang; her maternal aunt, Liqin Ye; and her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, who arrived in the United States on June 17.
They have been staying at two apartments in the Orchard Downs complex, supported by a large network of Chinese students who attend the UI and several folks who live in town, including Charlie Li, president of the Chinese American Association of Central Illinois.
A semi-retired businessman, Li was among more than a dozen folks surrounding the family as they entered the courthouse. He said he's been driving them around, providing translation services and just "helping with daily life."
"This is a very challenging stage for the family. They have a lot of people helping them out, bringing over good Chinese food," Li said.
ACES dean: 'Strong family'
Also present Thursday was UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler; translator Ann Tsai of the vice chancellor for student affairs office; Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES; and Kaiyu Guan, an assistant professor in the department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences with whom Ms. Zhang was studying.
"In a matter of a very short time, she built some strong relationships," Kidwell said of Ms. Zhang, who arrived in the U.S. for the first time in her life on April 24.
Ms. Zhang chose the UI not only for its academic reputation in her field of crop productivity but because the stipend was enough to allow her to support herself.
Her aunt earlier told The News-Gazette that the family — which includes her father, a truck driver, her stay-at-home mother and a brother — was counting on Ms. Zhang to complete her education, become a professor of agriculture and support the family.
Kidwell called the faculty and students in ACES a "strong family" who are trying "to do what we can do to stand in support."
Bruno, born and raised in Champaign, talked about what a welcoming community Champaign County is to the many immigrants who come here to work or study and eventually settle here.
"Bad things happen everywhere," he said, adding that they don't often happen here.
"It's important to wait until the evidence is in to draw conclusions," he said.
Bruno said he, his father, Tom and his brother Evan, who also represent Christensen, are expecting to get reports in the next couple of weeks.