Suspect in Kidnapping of Chinese Scholar at University of Illinois May Face Death Penalty

Brendt Christensen, the 28-year-old suspect in the kidnapping of a visiting female scholar from China, may face a potential death penalty upon conviction based on the additional serious charges filed against him on Tuesday.

The former University of Illinois graduate student from Champaign, Illinois, was charged with a count of “kidnapping resulting in a death” of 26-year-old University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang. Her body has yet to be found.

The superseding indictment also accused Christensen of lying to federal agents, with the jury adding two new counts of making false statements to FBI in the charges, according to the Chicago Tribune

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Zhang’s disappearance back in June not only rocked the University of Illinois campus and surrounding communities but also made international headlines. 

Based on the four-page indictment returned by the grand jury, Christensen had intentionally killed the victim from Nanping, China, in “an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse”, noting that he did so “after substantial planning and premeditation.”

Conviction on the new kidnapping charge could death penalty or mandatory life in prison without parole for Christensen. The decision on his eventual sentence will be in the hands of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he is deemed to make at a later date.

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Currently being held without bond, Christensen is set to appear in court tentatively on Feb. 27  before U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce.

Zhang’s family and boyfriend are currently in Urbana, Illinois,  where they have been since about a week after her disappearance, reports the News-Gazette.

Court documents revealed that prosecutors have alleged that in the afternoon of June 9, Zhang was commuting to an apartment building to sign a lease when, after failing to catch a bus on the bus stop, she was lured by Christensen to get her inside his car. Footage captured by a surveillance camera from a nearby parking garage reportedly showed Zhang speaking to the driver shortly before getting into the front passenger seat. Zhang was reported missing by one of her professors that evening after failing to get a response from her the entire day.

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Christensen became the case’s primary suspect after investigators found that the Saturn Astra car seen in the footage belonged to him. When questioned by the FBI, he initially said he was home playing video games all day when Zhang went missing. Three days later, Christensen changed his story when asked again, saying he was driving on campus on that day when he offered a ride to an Asian woman, who he claimed looked distressed. In his statement, Christensen stated the woman immediately panicked due to a wrong turn he made and he let her out of his car just a few blocks from where he found her.

After a thorough examination of his phone, investigators have found that the suspect made visits to a sadomasochism fetish website and engaged in discussion threads on kidnapping fantasies there.

An audio surveillance, reportedly conducted by the FBI on June 29 during a campus walk and vigil in Zhang’s honor, caught Christensen on tape pointing out people in the crowd and describing his “ideal victim.” In another recording, Christensen allegedly can be heard admitting to having kidnapped Zhang, also detailing how she fought back as he held her against her will.

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