URBANA — The estate of Yingying Zhang is suing two social workers at the University of Illinois Counseling Center for wrongful death and negligence in their care of her accused kidnapper and killer, Brendt Christensen.
The estate is also suing Christensen, whose criminal trial begins Wednesday and who described an "irrational interest in serial killers" at a visit to the counseling center three months before Ms. Zhang was last seen.
The estate is seeking compensatory and punitive damages "in an amount to be determined at trial" on each of the five counts.
The federal lawsuit was filed by the Chicago-based Clifford Law Offices on behalf of Daniel Deneen, the administrator of Ms. Zhang's estate and a lawyer based in McLean County.
Pam Menaker, the communications partner at Clifford Law Offices, declined to comment on the 20-page lawsuit filed Friday.
The family's lawyer in Urbana, Steve Beckett, said he first saw the lawsuit Monday morning.
"It doesn't have anything to do with what I'm doing for the family," said Beckett, who has been helping the family through the legal process of the Christensen criminal trial.
The family's lawyer in Chicago, Zhidong Wang, said he's been helping Ms. Zhang's family communicate with the Clifford Law Offices, but declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Many of the allegations in the lawsuit were brought up in March by Christensen's lawyers in a bid to avoid the death penalty. They want to call an expert who will argue that the UI Counseling Center failed to give him adequate care.
Their motion revealed that Christensen visited the center on March 21, 2017, after previously being treated for depression and sleep issues at the McKinley Health Center.
According to the motion, he told an intern at the counseling center that he had been abusing alcohol and Vicodin, had expressed an interest in serial killers, and was depressed after dropping out of the U of I's physics Ph.D. program and after his wife proposed opening their marriage of nine years.
He also said he "had thoughts of committing a murder," according to the intern's notes. "He explained that he had taken steps to put a plan in place by purchasing some items but had returned them."
The intern requested Christensen get a "consult" with someone else, according to the motion.
Christensen returned to the counseling center nine days later. While speaking with a social worker about his marital problems, he "hinted at possible suicide," but said "he was now feeling better."
This social worker referred him to a licensed clinical social worker, who also interviewed Christensen.
He told that person 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."
Christensen also denied any current suicidal or homicidal plans during that conversation, according to the motion.
The defense has made it clear that its expert doesn't plan to address the UI's potential legal liability, but the newly public details apparently gave Ms. Zhang's family an opening.
The lawsuit alleges that the social workers who interviewed Christensen — Jennifer Maupin and Thomas Miebach — "knew that (Christensen) satisfied the criteria of a high-level threat of harm to others."
It alleges that they "initiated a treatment plan," but "acted with deliberate indifference to Defendant Christensen's known risk of harm to others at the University where they allowed Defendant Christensen to remain working as a graduate teacher at the University in good standing, effectively encouraging (Christensen) to believe that his homicidal ideations did not require immediate and long-term care."
Christensen was a UI graduate student in physics from 2013 to May 2017, and he was a teaching assistant for several years.
The lawsuit alleges that Maupin and Miebach "apparently ceased treatment without initiating any emergency or acute treatment options for" Christensen "to sufficiently safeguard the students at the University from the foreseeable threat of harm posed by" him.
Their "incomplete treatment plan failed to treat Defendant Christensen's symptoms to necessary resolution," the lawsuit alleges.
This allowed Christensen to infer that "his treatment plan was satisfactorily concluded, which encouraged (his) homicidal ideations to become exacerbated and heightened," the lawsuit alleges.
It also says the treatment plan "did not include any intervention by the University officials, human resources, or law enforcement."
Maupin and Miebach did not respond to emails seeking comment, and a UI spokesman said the lawsuit will be reviewed.
"We have not received any formal notification of this litigation, but we will review any filings and respond appropriately," Chris Harris said.
Ms. Zhang's estate is not suing the university as an entity.
After the defense's motion earlier this year, UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler defended the counseling center, but declined to comment on Christensen's care.
"State and federal health and privacy prevent us from commenting on the treatment given to any individual student," she said in April. "However, we are confident in the treatment and services the staff of our counseling center provide to the students who come to them. Our staff are trained to provide care and services that are consistent with the best practices in mental health care nationally."
Ms. Zhang's estate is also suing Christensen for battery.
She "sustained injuries of a personal and pecuniary nature, including but not limited to, conscious pain and suffering prior to her death, and had she survived she would have been entitled to bring an action for those injuries she suffered," the lawsuit states.
Christensen's court-appointed defense attorney in the criminal matter, Elisabeth Pollock, declined to comment, and it's unclear who will represent him in the civil case.
'A lot of choices'
Larry Jeckel, a forensic psychiatrist who has testified in many trials, said he doesn't know the details, but said he'd look for evidence of whether the counselors took Christensen's case seriously.
"Did they watch him? Did they take him in the next day? Did they take the homicidality seriously?" Jeckel wondered. "If you say something homicidal and you think the person is a danger, you're obligated to let the police know."
But he said there are a variety of steps that could be taken.
"You could commit him. ... You could have the police take him over to OSF," he said. "There's a lot of choices about what to do with someone who expresses homicidal ideation."
What he said it comes down to is: "Would a reasonable psychiatrist or psychologist find him imminently dangerous?"