Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against a former grad student of the University of Illinois who allegedly murdered Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. He may also be the perpetrator of other violent crimes.
Yingying Zhang Sought to Help Her Family
Yingying Zhang, 26, came to the University of Illinois in hopes of eventually landing a professor’s position. She had been a successful student in China, earning a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her goal was to gain a good position and help her family back home financially.
Zhang arrived in Illinois in April 2017. By June, she had begun to settle into her new home. On June 9, Zhang was on her way to sign lease papers for an apartment. She never made it to her apartment and was never seen again.
A Suspect Found
Surveillance footage shows Yingying Zhang climbing into a “Saturn Astra” at 2:00 p.m. on June 9. Investigators narrowed down the search to four Saturn Astras in the area, including a car that belonged to former graduate student Brendt Christensen.
When approached by investigators, Christensen initially claimed he was playing video games at home at the time of Zhang’s disappearance.
His story then changed. Christensen claimed he’d offered a ride to an unnamed Asian woman who was late to an appointment. He said he let her out of his vehicle a few blocks away from where they met once he made a wrong turn and she became frightened.
On June 29, the FBI obtained an audio recording of Christensen allegedly claiming that he had held Zhang at his apartment against her will. He had also used his cell phone to access a fetish web site and forums dedicated to kidnapping fantasies.
The next day, he was arrested and charged with kidnapping. This charge was later upgraded to kidnapping resulting in death.
Zhang’s body hasn’t been recovered yet.
As part of their case against Christensen, prosecutors alleged that he had choked and sexually assaulted another woman in 2013. They also believe that there are more victims of Christensen’s who have yet to be found.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, a rarity in Illinois since it was abolished in that state in 2011. It is still available under federal law, but it does require the approval of the U.S. attorney general. With the death penalty in play, the trial, scheduled for February 27, 2018, may be delayed for months.
Prosecutors said the death penalty was warranted because Christensen “is likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future that would constitute a continuing and serious threat to the lives and safety of others.”
To date, Christensen has pleaded not guilty.