PEORIA — When the U.S. attorneys prosecuting Brendt Christensen walked into the courtroom Wednesday, they greeted Yingying Zhang's family and shook their hands.
But besides that gesture, the family was not prepared for the grisly details Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller described about Ms. Zhang's death in 2017, including that Christensen was heard on a wire recording saying he raped and choked her, broke her head open with a baseball bat, stabbed her in the neck and cut her head off.
"We did not know all that detail. I think people assume that the family was let into all the government evidence," but that's not the case, said Steve Beckett, the family's lawyer in Urbana. "We knew the death was horrible, we were told it was horrible, but the family did not know the details that we heard today."
They're handling it "about as well as could be expected," Beckett said. "The family is there for Yingying. They'll be there for Yingying everyday."
Ms. Zhang's father and younger brother watched from the courtroom, while her mother watched from the overflow room with translators. The family wore earpieces to listen to the translators.
The cavernous courtroom was packed Wednesday for opening statements, with Ms. Zhang's family and their lawyers, about 20 reporters, two courtroom sketch artists and various guests.
Shortly before everyone arrived, Christensen's lawyers made one last attempt to delay the trial, filing a motion at 7:28 a.m. to delay proceedings until they receive new evidence from the civil lawsuit filed last week by Ms. Zhang's family against two University of Illinois Counseling Center counselors.
But U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid quickly dismissed this, saying it could lead to a two-year delay.
"Given the timing of the requested continuance, the extensive preparation of both sides for trial, the scheduling of witnesses for trial and the overall history and posture of the case to this point, a request to indefinitely reschedule, or for any other delay in trial at this point, does not serve the interests of justice," Shadid said.
Once this was taken care of, the jury was brought in and the two sides made their opening statements.
'He does the unthinkable'
As shocking as Miller's opening statement was, Assistant Federal Defender George Taseff's was perhaps more so.
"Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang. Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang," Taseff said. "Nothing that we say or do during this phase of trial is meant to sidestep or deny that Brendt is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang."
While admitting his guilt up front, Taseff said, "Brendt Christensen is on trial for his life."
If convicted, Christensen faces the death penalty, which requires a unanimous vote by the seven men and five women that make up the jury.
In his opening statement, Taseff said that Christensen was drunk and slurring his speech at the campus vigil for Ms. Zhang, when his girlfriend was wearing a wire recording him making the incriminating statements.
Not everything on the recording can be trusted, Taseff said, given his inebriation and some of the outlandish claims he made, including that Ms. Zhang was his 13th victim.
The FBI aggressively pursued these claims, he said, but hasn't "found one shred of evidence linking Brendt Christensen" to any other crime.
Taseff also argued that Christensen's life has been a "tragedy of immense proportions," from a promising physics doctoral student at the University of Illinois to a man whose wife wanted a divorce, had no friends, abused alcohol and depression medications and who had developed persistent and intrusive thoughts of murder.
He hit "rock bottom," Taseff said, and "committed this horrible crime."
After three solid semesters at the University of Illinois, "things began falling apart," Taseff said, with Christensen having sleep issues and depression, missing classes and his academic advisers telling him to seek counseling.
In the fall of 2016, he received "straight Fs," Taseff said, and in March 2017, his wife told him she wanted a divorce.
Two days later, he told an intern at the UI Counseling Center that he had no friends and had thoughts of harming himself and others.
"I want to get help. I'm not that kind of person," Christensen told the intern, according to Taseff.
He visited the counseling center nine days later and was referred to Rosecrance, Taseff said.
Before he did, he met his new girlfriend on the online dating service OkCupid, who introduced him to BDSM, Taseff said. Christensen was the dominant partner in the relationship.
The week of June 5, Christensen learned his wife would be taking a trip that weekend to Wisconsin Dells with her new boyfriend, staying at the same place they had spent their honeymoon, Taseff said.
His wife left for the Dells at 2 a.m., so Christensen texted his new girlfriend, but she was also busy with another man.
"He was alone in his apartment. No one anywhere to turn to. His ground zero, rock bottom," Taseff said.
He woke up at 7:30 a.m., Taseff said, and made his way to Schnucks to buy the largest bottle of cheap rum he could find.
"A perfect storm has converged," Taseff said. At 2 p.m., "he does the unthinkable. ... He takes her to his apartment and kills her."
In pretrial motions, Christensen's lawyers had never hinted much at what their defense strategy would be, much less that they'd admit he's guilty.
Early on, his lawyers noted Christensen had no prior criminal record and suggested Ms. Zhang might still be alive, saying they would need to investigate possible sightings of her. But more recently, they acknowledged the "death of Ms. Zhang."
And in a motion this April, the defense referred to Christensen's "crime," rather than his "alleged crime," but it was unclear if the defense was admitting his crime, speaking hypothetically or just accidentally left a word out. Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock did not respond to an email at the time seeking clarification.
There's also been almost no discussion of a plea deal in open court, besides Judge Shadid mentioning in a pretrial hearing that it's still a possibility.
While Taseff said Christensen was in a "downward spiral," Miller said in his opening statement that "the defendant was pursuing something dark, something evil."
At the same time, Ms. Zhang was "pursuing her dream," Miller said, coming to the University of Illinois as a visiting scholar with the hope of receiving her doctorate.
She left her family in China to study photosynthesis in soybeans and corn and had planned to marry her boyfriend in October 2017.
She arrived that April, getting an apartment at Orchard Downs southeast of campus, but after a couple months, was looking for a new apartment at the One North complex to save money and get roommates, Miller said.
After working in her lab the morning of June 9, 2017, she stopped at home for lunch before heading to One North by bus.
She texted the marketing manager at 1:38 p.m. that she'd be running about 10 minutes late.
When she got off the bus near campus, she was on the opposite side of the street from the connecting bus she wanted and tried to flag it down.
She tried to chase after it along Springfield Avenue and turning north on Goodwin Avenue.
She eventually gave up, waiting at the bus stop at Goodwin Avenue and Clark Street.
"While she waited, a man in a black Saturn Astra pulled up," Miller said. "The defendant, Brendt Christensen, was the last person to see her alive."
He described Christensen as leading a double life, developing a fascination with serial killers, noting his interest in Ted Bundy and the novel "American Psycho."
He had also downloaded photos to his phone of bound women, and ordered and returned a six-foot-long duffel bag, Miller said.
In May 2017, he said in a text that "fading into nothingness terrifies him. ... I don't care how I'm remembered, just that I am. ... I would rather destroy humanity than let that happen," according to Miller.
"He had intent, he had a plan," Miller said.
And then the opportunity arose, he said, when his wife left to Wisconsin.
He again ordered a large duffel bag, which arrived June 6, Miller said.
On the morning of June 9, he bought the bottle of rum and drove around campus, attempting to pick up another woman who refused to get in his car, Miller said.
But that afternoon, he spotted Ms. Zhang, and after speaking for a minute, she got in the car at 2:04 p.m.
By 2:28 p.m., her iPhone had been disabled, Miller said.
According to the wire recording, Miller said he bound her hands, took her to his apartment, raped her in his bedroom, choked her for 10 minutes as she fought for her life, then carried her to his bathtub where he hit her on the head with a baseball bat as hard as he could.
This broke open her head, Miller said, and he then stabbed her neck and cut off her head.
But he wouldn't tell his girlfriend where her remains are, Miller said, and he would soon begin trying to cover up his crime.
"He was able to get rid of her iPhone, her clothes, her backpack," Miller said. "But he kept the mattresses and the baseball bat and spent much of the weekend cleaning."
He cleaned his car and the blood off the wall and baseboards, Miller said, and bought Drano.
When his wife returned, the visible signs were gone, Miller said.
But dark reddish stains remained under the carpet, Miller said.
And Ms. Zhang's DNA was identified on the baseball bat, carpet, dry wall, tack strip and on three swabs taken from the mattress, Miller said.
Twenty days after he killed Ms. Zhang, he attended the campus vigil for her with his girlfriend.
"I just wanted to see how many people are here," he said, according to Miller. "They're here for me."
"Yingying is never going to be found," he allegedly said. "She's gone forever."
'We were very worried'
Following opening statements, the prosecution called nine witnesses, including several University of Illinois police officers and Xiaolin Hou, Ms. Zhang's boyfriend.
Despite him being in China and her in the U.S., Hou said they still talked almost every day. When her colleagues reported that she couldn't be found, he said he felt shocked and terrible because she never let others worry about her.
He came to the U.S. to search for Ms. Zhang because he didn't want to give up hope of finding her.
The police officers testified about how their search for Ms. Zhang began with a call from Kaiyu Guan, the professor she was working for.
The day she went missing, Guan said he was notified by the postdoc she was working with, who had been planning to get dinner June 9 with Ms. Zhang and a couple others. "I was very worried."
He said he tried multiple times to contact her and said it was "quite worrisome."
They went to One North, but couldn't find any answers or anyone who had talked with her, so they called police.
He said they created posters, and started canvassing the community with the local Chinese community, dividing the area up into regions.
"We were very worried," he said. "We just wanted to find Yingying and see her safely back."
The defense spent very little time cross-examining witnesses, only asking Guan how well Ms. Zhang knew English. He said she knew it well for an international student.
The prosecution finished questioning its witnesses for the day around 3:30 p.m., earlier than expected.
Shadid said they were "a little bit ahead of schedule."
The trial continues at 9 a.m. today, and FBI agent Anthony Manganaro is expected to testify.