CHICAGO - As the frenzied search was underway for a missing Chinese scholar at University of Illinois' flagship campus last summer, federal law enforcement officials had stealth operations underway to gather information on the prime suspect.
Two people close to former U of I graduate student Brendt Christensen were recruited by the FBI to work undercover for them on the kidnapping and presumed murder of Yingying Zhang, according to newly filed court documents.
As the I-Team first reported last October, Christensen's girlfriend wore a wire and secretly recorded their walk-and-talk at a campus vigil for the 26-year old missing woman last summer. Video shows the couple at the gathering in late June. Christensen, 28, who was on the feds radar at the time, apparently did not know his girlfriend was wired for sound. She is identified in defense documents by the initials T. E. B., is cooperating with federal authorities and has not spoken publicly about the case.
In total she recorded seven private conversations with Christensen that month.
Then, according to newly filed court documents, Christensen was compromised after he was arrested in the Zhang case. The feds planted a cellmate next to Christensen, in the Macon County jail, who solicited information and reported back to FBI during July and August.
"Defendant and the CS [confidential source] were given one hour per day outside their cells during which time they would converse with one another, and the CS would deliberately ask Defendant about his pending federal case and elicit statements from the Defendant about it" the court filing states.
Motions by Christensen's attorneys castigate the government's reliance on both informants. They are seeking to suppress the recordings and the cellmate's information.
They claim the jailhouse information is "improper because the statements which Defendant allegedly made to the CS while confined in the protective custody unit at the Macon County Jail were obtained in violation of the Defendant's rights secured under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney in Champaign declined to answer any questions concerning the two informants.
Zhang's body has never been found. Her family, interviewed last October by the I-Team, has returned to China-disappointed that they were unable to return with her body or at least some solid answers.
They have pledged to return to Champaign for Christensen's trial. Officially there is still a February 27 trial date, but legal authorities suspect the case will be delayed because a conviction potentially carries the death penalty.