Brendt Christensen, a former Ph.D. student researcher from Champaign, murdered Yingying Zhang, who disappeared when she was attending the University of Illinois as a visiting scholar, according to his lawyer.
Christensen’s attorney made the stunning admission during opening statements in Christensen’s trial. “Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang,” federal defender George Taseff said, according to WTTF-TV. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang.”
Authorities long ago said in an affidavit that they believe Zhang is dead; however, because they did not find her body, Christensen was charged with kidnapping resulting in death and lying to FBI investigators. The affidavit gave very disturbing details, including that authorities alleged they had evidence that Christensen accessed a website entitled “Abduction 101” and sub-threads called “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.” He had also worked as a Physics class teaching assistant.
It was also revealed that Christensen was photographed attending a rally for the victim.
Here’s what you need to know:
Christensen Compared Himself to Ted Bundy, Prosecutors Say
For their part, prosecutors painted a very chilling picture of Brendt Christensen as the trial opened, alleging he compared himself to notorious serial killer Ted Bundy and that he raped and decapitated Zhang.
Prosecutor Eugene Miller alleged that Zhang’s blood was found on a bat that Christensen used to strike Zhang, as well as in other places in his apartment, according to WTTW-TV. He’s also accused of stabbing and choking her.
CNN reported that the defense attorney’s admission may indicate a strategy of focusing on avoiding the death penalty for Christensen; he said Christensen had been left by his wife, and was struggling with mental health and substance abuse, CNN reported. According to Fox News, the prosecutor alleged that Christensen bragged on a wiretap that he killed 12 other people, but this has not been verified. According to Fox, the defense attorney said Christensen made that remark while drunk.
According to the Chicago Tribune, prosecutors allege that Christensen pretended he was an undercover police officer to get Zhang into his car.
The student was supposed to check out an apartment to lease and never showed up. Video showed her at an Urbana, Illinois bus stop getting into a black Saturn vehicle, and, after that, she vanished without a trace. Her disappearance was big news in China as well as the United States as the Urbana-Champaign community gathered together to try to find Zhang, a promising young environmental engineer who was researching crop production.
Zhang was remembered as intelligent and extroverted. “She played guitar and sang in a band called ‘Cute Horse’ in China. One of her favorite songs was ‘The Rose,’ a hit in 1980 for American singer Bette Midler,” reported The Chicago Tribune.
Authorities Accuse Christensen of Visiting an ‘Abduction 101’ Fetish Site Thread
It’s clear from the affidavit that authorities thought they had their man, but they needed more evidence to seek an arrest, especially because they did not know where Zhang’s body was. The FBI placed Christensen under surveillance and monitored his conversations. That recording provided them with the key piece of evidence outlined in the affidavit.
A prosecutor told the court previously that Christensen was recorded at a rally for Zhang by authorities and “explained the characteristics of his ideal victim” and, according to CNN, “pointed out those in the crowd who matched them at a vigil he attended for the missing woman.” In one recording, Christensen is accused of saying that “Zhang fought him, and that he took her back to his apartment and held her there against her will last month,” CNN reported.
On June 29, 2017, “while Christensen was under law enforcement surveillance, agents overheard him explaining that he kidnapped Zhang. Based on this, and other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter, law enforcement agents believe that Ms. Zhang is no longer alive,” the affidavit contends.
The affidavit alleges that Christensen’s phone had accessed abduction threads on a site called FetLife. FetLife’s home page reads, “FetLife is the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community. Like Facebook, but run by kinksters like you and me. We think it is more fun that way. Don’t you?”
Authorities claim his mobile phone was used to access a thread entitled “Abduction 101.”
The thread has more than 3,000 members. The other thread authorities accuse Christensen of visiting is entitled “planning a kidnapping” and contains a post from someone else that reads, “I’m a lucky sub. I actually have a friend who is going to kidnap me. She also has 3 helpers. The catch is we’ve never done this before. Suggestions thoughts and ideas for the actual abduction are most welcome. We need help lol.”
On Facebook, Christensen, who was known to dress in black, had liked the book American Psycho and showed an interest in gaming and anime.
Authorities narrowed their search down to 18 four-door Saturn Astra vehicles registered in Champaign County and interviewed the owners, including Christensen. Initially, he said that, on the day that Zhang disappeared, he “could not initially recall his whereabouts. He later advised, however, he must have been either sleeping or he was playing video games at his residence all day.”
Later, authorities received an admission from Christensen that Zhang had been in his car, prompting the surveillance, according to the affidavit.
According to his LinkedIn page, Christensen was a Ph.D. Student Researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he has worked there for 3 years and 7 months. That’s the same university where Zhang was a visiting scholar.
Christensen wrote on LinkedIn: “I am a Ph.D. candidate in experimental condensed matter physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, I fabricate nanoscale-level devices and perform electrical measurements on them in order to discover new things about mesoscopic physics. These measurements are done with a variety of devices; most notably probe stations and cryogenic systems. Along the way, I utilize an assortment of programs and skills, such as Python, LabVIEW, electron-beam lithography, atomic force microscopy, and much more.”
Zhang was an international scholar who focused her research in the areas of photosynthesis and crop productivity. She had only arrived at the University of Illinois in April 2017. According to CNN, Zhang “had a year-long position at the university’s department of nature resources and environmental sciences.”
She graduated from “Beijing’s prestigious Peking University last year with a master’s degree in environmental engineering,” CNN reported.