Nearly two years later, accused kidnapper, killer of Chinese scholar will face trial

 

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URBANA — The trial hasn't started yet, but much has already been made public about the case against Brendt Christensen in the nearly two years of pretrial motions and hearings.

Since Christensen was arrested June 30, 2017, for allegedly kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, there have been more than 360 updates to the case's docket, several delays, the naming of a new judge, a change in venue and multiple hearings.

In those motions and hearings, the public has learned about Christensen's homicidal thoughts three months prior to Ms. Zhang's disappearance; him using a half-tank of gas the weekend she went missing, according to an FBI agent; and possible blood and DNA evidence from Ms. Zhang found at Christensen's apartment.

But Ms. Zhang's body has never been found, and prosecutors have never said exactly how they believe she died.

To convict Christensen, the burden will be on prosecutors to convince each of the 12 jurors that he committed the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt and without a key piece of evidence.

Ms. Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017, on surveillance footage entering a black Saturn Astra near a bus stop along Goodwin Avenue in Urbana. She had arrived two months earlier from China and was on her way to look at an apartment.

From that footage, investigators were able to fairly quickly target Christensen as a suspect.

By June 12, they had identified 18 similar Astras in Champaign County, including one registered to Christensen at the apartment complex he lived in on West Springfield Avenue in Champaign.

When asked where he was on June 9, Christensen said he must have been sleeping or playing video games, according to the criminal complaint against him.

Two days later, an investigator reviewing surveillance footage noticed a cracked hubcap on his Astra, which matched what they found when authorities returned to inspect Christensen's vehicle, the criminal complaint says.

That night, FBI agents returned with a search warrant and interviewed Christensen again.

This time, in a videotaped interview at an FBI office that was played at a hearing in December, he admitted to picking up a woman with broken English, but said he let her out a few blocks away after she panicked.

At this point, an FBI agent testified, authorities were confident they'd found Ms. Zhang's abductor.

After Christensen allegedly made incriminating statements into a wire worn by his girlfriend, he was arrested on June 30.

Secret recordings

Along with the charge of kidnapping resulting in death, Christensen faces two counts of lying to federal agents.

While his attorneys said early on that they'd need to investigate possible sightings of Ms. Zhang, they referred in a recent motion to the "death of Ms. Zhang."

And though prosecutors haven't said how they believe Ms. Zhang was killed, various pretrial motions and hearings have provided clues as to what prosecutors believe happened.

Just days after Christensen was arrested, prosecutors said at his detention hearing that he had been recorded describing how he kidnapped Ms. Zhang and carried her back to his apartment, how she "fought and resisted against him" and how he restrained her.

At a campus vigil the day before he was arrested, he allegedly was heard explaining the "characteristics of an ideal victim" and picking out other potential victims.

Even at that early hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long said the evidence against Christensen "seemed strong," at least strong enough to deny bail.

Biologist's testimony

In October, prosecutors alleged in a superseding indictment that Christensen intentionally killed Ms. Zhang in a way that involved "torture or serious physical abuse."

And when prosecutors decided in January 2018 to seek the death penalty against Christensen, they alleged he obstructed the investigation by "destroying or concealing the victim's remains; and sanitizing the crime scene."

In defense motions to exclude evidence filed in August 2018, it was revealed that a police dog alerted to the presence of a cadaver inside the bathroom of Christensen's apartment and that an FBI biologist would testify that she "identified DNA belonging to victim Y.Z. on swabs taken in Mr. Christensen's bedroom."

The biologist is also expected to testify that the possible presence of blood was detected in Christensen's bedroom and bathroom, including on his mattress, in his bathroom sink trap and on his bedroom wall and floor.

Only on two areas — pieces of carpet and baseboard — was the presence of blood confirmed, the defense said.

In response to these motions, prosecutors said Christensen "engaged in conduct that would result in her bleeding in the apartment" and that he "took extensive steps to clean the apartment."

They also said the blood stains were in the shape of handprints and "consistent with the defendant's own later recorded statements as to what occurred in the apartment."

Prosecutors had Christensen's girlfriend wear a wire and surreptitiously record his conversations in the two weeks leading up to his arrest. Law enforcement also questioned Christensen three times before his arrest.

Then, at a hearing in December, an FBI agent testified that Christensen's then-wife had been gone the weekend Ms. Zhang was last seen, but told the agent she was "shocked" when she returned and a half-tank of gas had been used in the Astra, which had also been taken to a car wash.

And just last week, the prosecution listed the evidence it plans to present at trial, including a stained baseball bat, a roll of duct tape and a giant canvas duffle bag found on his Amazon account.

It's unclear if he purchased the duffle bag or simply looked at it.

The prosecution's exhibit list also includes a maintenance request made for Christensen's apartment four days after Ms. Zhang was last seen, a paper on the criminal minds of serial killers, the book "American Psycho," a downloaded article on human decomposition and four images that had been downloaded to his phone months earlier of bound women.

'Future dangerousness'

Christensen's lawyers haven't said much about what their defense will look like during the guilt phase of the trial.

They've argued that his visits to fetish webpages about abduction fantasies were part of a consensual relationship and that his interest in serial killers hardly makes him unique.

When the government sought the death penalty charge, Christensen's lawyers noted that he is a "young recent graduate of the UI with no prior criminal record."

The defense's exhibit list includes Christensen's family history, family videos, financial records, records from the dating service OK Cupid, his high school yearbook, various educational and medical records, and job applications.

If convicted, Christensen's lawyers had been planning to argue that their client had a severe mental illness, in an effort to avoid the death penalty, but that strategy was dropped last month, days before he was scheduled to be interviewed by the prosecution's mental-health expert.

The defense also plans to bring in an expert to testify that, statistically, Christensen wouldn't likely pose a threat of "future dangerousness" if sentenced to life in prison.

And they're planning to argue that the UI Counseling Center didn't provide adequate follow-up care when Christensen expressed homicidal and suicidal thoughts three months before Ms. Zhang was last seen.

Excerpts from interview

In the March 2017 interview with the counseling center, Christensen said he had been abusing alcohol and Vicodin, had expressed an interest in serial killers, and was depressed after dropping out of the UI's physics Ph.D. program and his wife proposing an open marriage after nine years together.

"After his academic hopes waned, he began to develop an irrational interest in serial killers," according to the interviewer's notes. "He went on to say that he had thoughts of committing a murder. He explained that he had taken steps to put a plan in place by purchasing some items but had returned them."

He told another interviewer that he "had recently thought about murder 'in an analytical fashion,' particularly ruminating about how one might go about killing a person and 'get away with it.' He also admitted to having purchased items that could be used in the 'transport and disposal' of a body, but said he had disposed of these items."

The trial begins Monday in Peoria with jury selection and is expected to last several weeks.

Timeline of events: A look back at the last two years

April 2017

YINGYING ZHANG of China arrives in Champaign-Urbana to study crop productivity at the University of Illinois for a year as a visiting scholar.

June 9, 2017

On her way to look at a new apartment, Ms. Zhang is last seen on surveillance footage around 2 p.m. entering a black Saturn Astra near a bus stop on campus.

June 30, 2017

A day after attending a campus vigil for Ms. Zhang, former UI graduate student BRENDT CHRISTENSEN is arrested.

Oct. 3, 2017

A grand jury issues a superseding indictment against Christensen, accusing him of kidnapping resulting in Ms. Zhang's death, a crime eligible for the federal death penalty.

Jan. 19, 2018

The Justice Department announces it plans to seek the death penalty against Christensen, a decision that was ultimately approved by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Dec. 4, 2018

Christensen's lawyers announce they plan to seek a mental-health defense to avoid the death penalty when the trial begins in Urbana.

Dec. 6, 2018

The trial is moved to Peoria for what Judge JAMES SHADID cites as logistical reasons. He reassigns the case to himself after Judge COLIN BRUCE is removed from hearing criminal cases.

Feb. 28, 2019

Because the defense's mental-health expert wouldn't be ready for an April trial, the start of Christensen's trial is delayed to June 3, 2019.

April 26, 2019

Christensen drops his plan to seek a mental-health defense days before he's scheduled to be interviewed by the government's mental-health expert.

June 3, 2019

The trial is scheduled to begin Monday with jury selection, followed by guilt and possible sentencing phases. The entire trial is expected to last several weeks.