Accused kidnapper's attorney says he'll plead not guilty today

 

Listen to this article

URBANA — The man charged with kidnapping missing University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang will appear before a judge again Wednesday afternoon to determine whether he will be released on bond or detained in prison until his trial.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long on Monday ordered Brendt Christensen, 28, a former UI graduate student from Champaign, to be held without bond until the hearing at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Christensen made his first appearance in a packed courtroom at the federal courthouse in Urbana on Monday morning, with Ms. Zhang's father and other relatives watching and more supporters gathered outside.

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 scheduled Wednesday's detention hearing.

Until then, Christensen will be held in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service at the Macon County Jail, where he has been detained since his arrest Friday night.

Christensen is accused of luring Ms. Zhang into his car as she was waiting for a bus June 9 in Urbana and then holding her hostage in his Champaign apartment. Ms. Zhang has not been seen since, and authorities said Friday that she is presumed dead.

Christensen was first questioned by the FBI on June 12 and had been under continuous surveillance since June 16. As first reported by The News-Gazette on Sunday, he attended the march and concert in support of Ms. Zhang at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday — the day before he was arrested.

Talking with reporters outside the courthouse Monday, Bruno declined to take any questions about the specific allegations against his client. He said he'd met with Christensen 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 till the evidence comes in," Bruno said.

Life in prison among penalties

Ms. Zhang, who is from China, had just arrived on campus in April as a visiting scholar and had hoped to pursue graduate studies at the UI and become a professor.

She disappeared on her way to sign a lease for a new apartment in Urbana. UI security-camera footage showed her getting in a black Saturn Astra, later identified by authorities as Christensen's, while waiting for a bus near the intersection of West Clark Street and North Goodwin Avenue, near Campbell Hall.

After identifying only 18 Saturn Astras in Champaign County, authorities first questioned Christensen on June 12 at his west Champaign apartment, according to the criminal complaint. Christensen told the agents he was likely at home that day sleeping or playing video games, FBI Special Agent Anthony Manganaro said in the complaint.

Agents later noticed a cracked hubcap on the car in the security footage that matched one on Christensen's car, the complaint said. They searched it and questioned him again June 15, and his story changed. He said he had in fact picked up a woman that day, but she "panicked" after he made a wrong turn and he dropped her off in a residential neighborhood, the complaint said.

FBI agents also searched his apartment and later his phone and found that in April, he had visited a forum on the website FetLife entitled "Abduction 101," including "Perfect abduction fantasy" and "planning a kidnapping," the complaint said.

On June 29, the FBI captured Christensen on audiotape explaining how he kidnapped Ms. Zhang and held her in his apartment against her will, Manganaro wrote.

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. July 14. It would be waived if a grand jury returns an indictment before then.

Suspect: Married, unemployed

In the federal system, it's rare for defendants to be released on pretrial bail if the charge involves any element of violent crime or a weapon, Bruno said.

Bruno urged the public to keep an open mind in this case.

"What they've heard and what they've read online is not the whole story," he said. "It's a selective amount of information that the government has released to support its claim that Brendt Christensen is the person who committed this offense. But there's a whole world of information out there that the public is unaware of."

Christensen, who is from Stevens Point, Wis., earned a bachelor's degree in math and physics at the University of Wisconsin in 2013 and enrolled as a UI graduate student the following August. He opted out of the Ph.D. program in May 2016 but received his master's degree in physics two months ago.

Bruno said Christensen has been looking for a job since graduating in May but is currently unemployed. He is married, but the couple doesn't have children, Bruno said.

"The family members that I have spoken to are 100 percent supporting him, and they're scrambling to adjust their schedules to be here to support him, but there's no firm plans in terms of who is coming where and when," Bruno said.

Bruno said Christensen has no criminal history.

"This is all a foreign thing to him," Bruno said. "He's been trying to maintain a positive attitude. He knows that this is going to be a long process, and I think he's prepared for it."

Bruno said Christensen is becoming familiar quickly with the process he is "now in the thick of."

"He's a very intelligent guy and he's learning on the fly," he said.

'Justice for Yingying!' chants

Monday's hearing was moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate members of Ms. Zhang's and Christensen's families. The room filled quickly and a large crowd was turned away, including media representatives from across the country.

Ms. Zhang's father and other relatives were among the 45 people packed into the courtroom. Accompanied by an attorney, they left the courthouse more than an hour after the hearing ended.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse and across the street holding banners and signs reading, "We are with you Yingying" and repeatedly chanting "Justice for Yingying!"

"We just want to seek justice," said Charlie Li, president of the Chinese American Community of Central Illinois. "This is a very special case. 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, to support Ms. Zhang and her family. They had hoped to get inside the courtroom but arrived too late.

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

Quiping Lin, a local resident who is from the same area of China as the Zhang family and has been helping them in recent days, was in the courtroom Monday. She plans to attend Wednesday's hearing as well.

"We need justice," she said through Li, who was translating. "If he is guilty, he needs to be punished."

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

Trending Videos