On Thursday, Brendt Christensen pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping of missing Chinese scholar Zhang Yingying during his arraignment at an Illinois court.
When asked by the judge about his mental health state, Christensen said that he was taking antidepressants but was not under doctor or hospital care.
The arraignment was attended by Zhang’s father, aunt and her boyfriend.
Christensen, 28, is a former doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where Zhang, 26, was studying. His professors have described him as “completely normal,” saying that there was nothing in his past that made them suspect he was capable of doing something like kidnapping and murder.
Zhang, who had been in the US for about a month, disappeared on the afternoon of June 9th. After telling friends that she was going to sign a lease on an apartment, she was last seen on surveillance camera entering a black Saturn Astra near a bus stop.
The FBI later tracked the vehicle to Christensen, placing him under surveillance. On June 29th, agents heard him say on an audio recording that he had kidnapped Zhang and held her in his apartment against her will. On Christensen’s phone, they found searches to a forum called “Abduction 101” with visits to subthreads titled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”
Before being arrested, Christensen was spotted attending a vigil for Zhang at the university campus.
The FBI has also revealed that Christensen has told inconsistent stories about where he was when Zhang disappeared. At first, he said he could not remember, but later, he admitted that he had picked up an Asian woman who needed a ride on the corner, but claimed that she had jumped out of his car after he made a wrong turn.
A pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for August 28th with the trial set to begin on September 12th. If he is convicted, Christensen faces up to life in prison. Zhang’s boyfriend has said that he hopes his girlfriend’s kidnapper will face the “harshest punishment.”
Meanwhile, federal authorities are still searching for Zhang, presumed dead.
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