On Tuesday, a federal grand jury upgraded charges against Brendt Christensen, accusing the 28-year-old former University of Illinois graduate student of kidnapping and killing Chinese visiting scholar Zhang Yingying. If convicted, Christensen faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Back in July, Christensen was initially charged by a grand jury with the kidnapping of the 26-year-old Chinese student, whose body still hasn’t been found after she went missing in June. The new indictment alleges that he intentionally killed Zhang in “an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner” involving torture or serious physical abuse following “substantial planning and premeditation” on his part.
Zhang, who had been in the US for about a month, disappeared on the afternoon of June 9th from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. After telling friends that she was going to sign a lease on an apartment, she was seen on surveillance camera entering a black Saturn Astra near a bus stop. She was not seen again.
The FBI later tracked the vehicle to Christensen, placing him under surveillance.
The new indictment against Christensen also includes two counts of making false statements to FBI agents. At first, Christensen allegedly told the FBI that on the day of Zhang’s disappearance he was inside his apartment all day, sleeping and playing video games. A few days later, he changed his story, admitting that while driving his car on campus he had picked up an Asian woman who said she was late for an appointment, but claiming that the woman had quickly jumped out of his vehicle inside a residential area after he made a wrong turn.
While he was under surveillance, on June 29th, police heard Christensen say on an audio recording that he had kidnapped Zhang and held her in his apartment against her will. When they checked his 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 arrest of Christensen left the University of Illinois community stunned. Christensen’s former academic advisor said that there was nothing in his past that made him suspect that Christensen was capable of doing something like this.
“He was completely normal, there were no complaints about his teaching,” he said. “He was on the excellent teaching list, so he was well-reviewed by his students.”
Christensen is tentatively set to go to trial on February 27th. Zhang is presumed dead, but her body still has not been found.
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