Members of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang's family walk with lawyers outside of the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Peoria, before the trial of Brendt Christensen.
Attorney Zhidong Wang holds an umbrella for Yingying Zhang's mother, Lifeng Ye, and brother, Xinyang Zhang, as they walk out of the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday in Peoria.
Testimony wrapped up around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Judge Shadid said things are moving a bit ahead of schedule. Trial will resume 9 a.m. Thursday.
UIPD officers George Sandwick and James Carters testified about the search for Ms. Zhang.
Sandwick said he called dozens of car dealerships to see if they had info on black Saturn Astras, but no luck. He said he went to the One North apartment complex and Ms. Zhang’s apartment at Orchard Downs and collected her tooth brush and hair samples for evidence.
Carter is the officer who on June 14, 2017, spotted a deformity in the front right passenger hubcap of the Astra seen picking Ms. Zhang up. A chunk was missing from the top of the hubcap, and the car also had a sunroof. These details matched the Astra Christensen owned.
Carter also went to Christensen’s house that night and collected evidence with Illinois State Police crime scene investigators.
He also continued to canvass the area, looking for surveillance footage or storage units in Christensen’s name, but found nothing leading them to Ms. Zhang.
UIPD Officer Tara Hurless testified Wednesday afternoon that when she was first called onto the case, she went to Willard Airport to see if Ms. Zhang had taken any flights or rented any cars. Her supervisor said he "needed me right away."
Then she checked with MTD to see if she had boarded a bus, and then the railroad tracks, because that was the location of the last ping from her iPhone.
She then described MTD surveillance footage that was played showing Ms. Zhang entering a bus at Orchard Downs, then another of her trying to flag a bus on campus.
The bus was on the other side of the street. She chased it down the street and around the corner, but couldn’t catch up. In this footage, a black Astra could be seen on Springfield Avenue, and then again near Goodwin and University.
Ms. Zhang eventually waited for another bus at the corner of Goodwin and Clark in Urbana. The Astra passed her again, turning east on Clark. A couple minutes later, it returned to Ms. Zhang, and she talked to Christensen for about a minute before getting in. The Astra continued north on Goodwin.
UPDATE: 3:45 p.m.
Assistant Professor Kaiyu Guan, whom Ms. Zhang worked for, testified about how she had applied for Ph.D. position and missed out, but continued to seek opportunities. "She showed great initiative," he said.
He said she was very hardworking, eager to learn, and helped her colleagues.
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, where Ms. Zhang was looking for an apartment, 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."
Defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock cross-examined Guan, asking about how well Ms. Zhang knew English. He said she knew it well for an international student.
The property marketing manager at One North also testified about texting Ms. Zhang, her responding that she’d be late and never hearing from her again after she missed her appointment.
UPDATE: 1 p.m.
Brendt Christensen attended the June 29, 2017, campus vigil for Yingying Zhang so he could see how many people turned out, prosecutors said Wednesday.
"They’re here for me," he told his girlfriend, not aware she was recording him, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said on Day 1 of Christensen’s trial in Peoria.
On the same recording, he allegedly said of Ms. Zhang: "She’s never going to be found" and "She’s gone forever."
The defense said their client was intoxicated and slurring his words during the vigil.
He had hit rock bottom, the defense argued Wednesday — Christensen had no friends in Champaign, his wife was seeking a divorce and he was abusing alcohol.
The day Ms. Zhang disappeared — June 9, 2017 — was the same day Christensen’s then-wife left with her new boyfriend for Wisconsin Dells, the defense said. That’s the same place Christensen and his wife had gone on their honeymoon, Christensen’s new girlfriend was also out of the picture on June 9, spending the night with another man, the defense said.
So that morning, he bought the largest bottle of cheap rum that Schnucks had available.
"A perfect storm has converged," the defense said of June 9, the day Ms. Zhang went missing.
In other testimony Wednesday:
— After opening statements, prosecutors called a UI police officer, who first heard the report that Ms. Zhang was missing. The officer testified that he made multiple visits to Ms. Zhang’s apartment and was let in by housing staff, but he didn’t find anything of note.
The officer also went to multiple restaurants to show her picture to people, but no one reported seeing her.
— An employee of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District testified about the route changes that were made in the summer of 2017 because of construction on Green Street. Ms. Zhang, new to town, was waiting for a bus when Christensen’s car stopped to pick her up.
— Ms. Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, told the court that the couple was planning to get married in October 2017.
Despite him being in China and her in the U.S., he 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.
UPDATE: 11 a.m.
PEORIA — On Wednesday morning, Brendt Christensen’s lawyers admitted he killed Yingying Zhang in 2017.
From a wiretap on Christensen's girlfriend, Christensen said he brought Zhang back to his apartment, raped her, stabbed her and decapitated her. Her body remains missing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said Christensen stabbed Ms. Zhang in the neck and cut off her head, then disposed of the remains at an unknown location.
"Yingying is never going to be found," Christensen reportedly said at the memorial walk on June 29, 2017.
Christensen then cleaned up his apartment and car.
"Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang," said Christensen's defense.
Defense attorney George Taseff said the trial will be an effort to spare Christensen the death penalty.
The defense on Wednesday took issue with some of the prosecution's evidence, including a secret recording where Christensen says Ms. Zhang was Christensen's 13th victim. Taseff said Christensen had been drinking when he made that statement. Taseff added the FBI did a multi-state investigation of Christensen's claim of other victims and found no evidence.
In detailing the crime, prosecutors said Christensen picked Ms. Zhang up around 2 p.m. and her iPhone sent its last signal at 2:28 p.m.
They said he bound her hands, took her to his apartment and bedroom, raped and assaulted her, and choked her for 10 minutes while she fought for life.
Then they said he took her to the bathtub, hit her in the head with a baseball bat, breaking open her head, and cut off her head.
PEORIA — The federal death penalty trial begins today against Brendt Christensen, who's been charged with the 2017 kidnapping of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.
After the jury is sworn in around 9 a.m., the prosecution and the defense will make their opening statements, in which they lay out the evidence they plan to present during the trial.
The prosecution will then begin making their case, calling witnesses and presenting evidence, over the next week and a half in an attempt to convince the jury that Christensen is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ms. Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017, on surveillance footage entering Christensen's car near a bus stop on campus. She had arrived two months earlier from China and was on her way to look at a new apartment.
Christensen has pleaded not guilty and told the FBI he let Ms. Zhang out a few blocks away.
Prosecutors believe he took her back to his apartment and killed her.
While the FBI has never said it located her body, she is presumed dead.
— Christensen’s lawyers have just filed a motion to continue the trial in light of the civil lawsuit filed by the estate of Ms. Zhang last week against two University of Illinois Counseling Center counselors.
— Judge Jim Shadid denied the motion by the defense to continue to the trial, so opening statements are underway.