US

Prosecutors Say American Man Cut Chinese Scholar’s Head Off After Killing Her

By Zachary Stieber

Prosecutors said that Brendt Christensen, an Illinois man, killed a visiting Chinese scholar before decapitating her. Christensen’s federal defender said that his client indeed killed the woman.

Christensen, a former master’s student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was charged with killing Yingying Zhang, 26, in July 2017, several weeks after she vanished after being seen talking to the driver of a black car and entering the car.

Christensen pleaded not guilty but his defense team told the court that the defendant was responsible for Zhang’s death.

“Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang,” federal defender George Taseff said on June 12 in his opening statement, reported WTTW.

Taseef said that the plea wouldn’t be changed because Christensen is “on trial for his life.” Christensen faces the death penalty if convicted.

Yingying-Zhang
Yingying Zhang in a file photo. (Courtesy of the University of Illinois Police Department via AP File)

There are also “factual issues” that need to be cleared up, the attorney said.

Federal prosecutor Eugene Miller said in his opening statement that Christensen has bragged about being like serial killer Ted Bundy and that he started plotting to kidnap and kill someone before he ever laid eyes on Zhang.

After investigators couldn’t find the missing woman’s body, Miller said, the defendant told his girlfriend: “I’m pretty good at this.”

Christensen brutally killed Zhang after she got into his car and later cut off her head, authorities said. “He kidnapped her, he murdered her, he covered up his crime,” Miller said.

Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar from southeastern China at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (University of Illinois Police Department)

Details of the crime were obtained by Christensen’s girlfriend, who wore a wire to record conversations she had with the suspect.

Other evidence included surveillance footage of Christensen in a car, picking up Zhang at a bus stop in Urbana and blood found in Christensen’s apartment that matched Zhang’s DNA, reported WLS.

Despite the shocking admission in his opening statement, Christensen’s defense attorney tried to portray his client as a man struggling with drugs and mental illness.

The defense may not call any witnesses, WLS legal analyst Gil Soffer said.

“I would be surprised if they (defense) called any witnesses. It doesn’t often happen in a criminal defense case. It doesn’t often happen in a murder case, which is really what this is. I suspect he’ll call nobody and that the evidence that we are seeing from him is evidence, if it comes to it, at the death penalty phase,” said ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.

Yingying Zhang's father Ronggao Zhang, left, and her friend Xiaolin Hou carry the banner as community members join together to walk for Yingying, a Chinese scholar who went missing three weeks ago, Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Urbana, Ill. (Holly Hart/The News-Gazette via AP)
Yingying Zhang’s father Ronggao Zhang, left, and her friend Xiaolin Hou carry the banner as community members join together to walk for Yingying, a Chinese scholar who went missing three weeks ago, June 29, 2017, in Urbana, Ill. (Holly Hart/The News-Gazette via AP)

Affidavit

According to an affidavit from FBI Special Agent Anthony Manganaro (pdf) released last year, Zhang disappeared on June 9 after she was last seen talking to the car driver and entering the vehicle.

Christensen was arrested after his girlfriend recorded him explaining how he kidnapped the scholar, who was visiting the campus researching photosynthesis and crop productivity. She joined the university a month before her disappearance, after she got her master’s degree at Peking University in 2016 and worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences for about a year.

On June 9, around 2 p.m., Zhang was running late for an appointment to sign a lease at an apartment complex in Urbana. She was on her way, but missed a bus and was waiting on a bus stop when a black Saturn Astra pulled up. She talked to the driver for about a minute and then entered the car and was driven away.

She never made her appointment and didn’t respond to a text message from the apartment manager. Calls from her colleagues went unanswered. Around 9:20 p.m., she was reported missing to police by the university’s associate professor.

Multiple law enforcement agencies joined the search for Zhang, including University of Illinois Police, Illinois State Police, and the FBI.

Police launched a search for the car, but didn’t have its license plate. However, they found 18 Saturn Astras registered in Champaign County.

One of them belonged to Christensen. When they talked to him on June 12, he initially said he couldn’t recall what he was doing during the time Zhang went missing. Later, he said he must have been sleeping or playing video games.

The investigators reviewed collected security camera footage and found the car they were looking for had a sunroof and a cracked hubcap, matching Christensen’s.

On June 29, Christensen was caught on audio explaining how he kidnapped Zhang and held her in his apartment.

Christensen was arrested on June 30—his 28th birthday.

Epoch Times reporter Petr Svab contributed to this report.