URBANA — Federal authorities have added more serious charges against a Champaign man accused of the kidnapping of a visiting Chinese scholar whose disappearance four months ago has rocked the University of Illinois campus and surrounding communities.
A grand jury in Springfield on Tuesday returned a "superseding indictment" against Brendt A. Christensen, 28, accusing him of the kidnapping resulting in death of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang on June 9, 2017. The indictment also accuses Christensen of lying to federal agents.
If convicted of kidnapping resulting in death, Christensen faces the death penalty or mandatory life in prison. The decision on whether the death penalty will be sought is in the hands of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The indictment alleges that Christensen intentionally killed Ms. Zhang, 26, of Nanping, China, in "an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse" and that he did so "after substantial planning and premeditation."
Authorities have not specified how she was killed.
The U.S. Attorney’s office confirmed a month ago that it would seek the superseding indictment against the former University of Illinois physics graduate student.
That prompted Christensen’s then hired-attorneys, Tom Bruno and sons Evan and Tony Bruno of Urbana, to ask U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce to let them off the case, which he did, after confirming that Christensen and his family lacked the means to pay the Brunos for a death penalty defense.
Christensen was arrested on June 30, three weeks after Ms. Zhang was last seen at a bus stop near Clark Street and Goodwin Avenue in Urbana. He was indicted on a single count of kidnapping July 12.
The new indictment alleges that Christensen allegedly kidnapped and held Ms. Zhang, and that he used a cellular telephone and Saturn Astra motor vehicle, both instruments of interstate commerce, to commit the offense. It adds the allegation that the kidnapping resulted in her death. The FBI has remained tight-lipped as to what happened to Ms. Zhang. No body has been recovered.
The two counts alleging he made false statements to the FBI accuse him of doing so on two different occasions.
The indictment alleges that Christensen falsely stated to FBI agents on June 12 that he stayed at his apartment and slept and played video games all day on June 9, "when he knew full well that he drove around the University of Illinois campus on the afternoon of June 9, and picked up Y,Z. as she was waiting for a bus."
The indictment alleges that again on June 15, Christensen falsely told an FBI agent that he dropped off an Asian female in a residential area shortly after picking her up in his Saturn Astra on June 9, "when he knew full well that he did not drop the female off shortly after picking her up, but instead, took her back to his apartment."
If convicted of making false statements to federal law enforcement agents, each offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Christensen has been held in the Macon County jail since his arrest by U.S. Marshals.
His trial date has tentatively been set for Feb. 27 before Judge Bruce in Urbana, who said he wanted to stay on schedule.
But given that U.S. public defenders now have to prepare for a potential death penalty case that they’ve been in only three weeks, a winter trial seems unlikely.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Bryan D. Freres and Eugene L. Miller of the Urbana office are prosecuting Christensen.
Ms. Zhang’s father, mother, brother and boyfriend remain in Urbana, where most of them have been since about a week after her disappearance. They have been living in a house there.
Urbana attorney Steve Beckett, who represents the family, said he had not spoken to them Tuesday but said the superseding indictment "is not unexpected."
How long Ms. Zhang’s family remains in the area is evaluated on a "month by month basis," Beckett said.
"There’s no change," in their intention to stay until their daughter is found, he said.
"Even with this indictment, they want to have hope," he said.
Asked if the government has shared information with the family on the manner of Ms. Zhang’s death, Beckett said he was unable to comment on what the evidence might be.