PEORIA, Ill. (WLS) -- On this very week two years ago, 26-year-old Yingying Zhang was at University of Illinois' flagship campus in downstate Urbana, studying crop productivity and photosynthesis.
That stopped at 2:04 pm on June 9, 2017, when police say the Chinese national got into Brendt Christensen's car. Zhang hasn't been seen since because authorities say Christensen kidnapped and tortured her, eventually killing her and disposing of her body.
Even though Zhang's remains have never been found, prosecutors have charged Christensen, a 28-year-old former grad student in physics at U of I, in an unusual federal case claiming that he abducted her and is responsible for her disappearance and death.
Jury selection began Monday in Peoria where the trial is being held, having been moved from the U of I area because of concentrated pre-trial publicity.
It is being prosecuted as a capital case, with Christensen facing the federal death penalty if convicted.
The first 16 prospective jurors were questioned Monday morning. The process of selecting a jury for the trial will likely take one to two weeks. The jurors will remain anonymous in this supercharged, global case that has attracted as much Chinese media attention as American.
Zhang's parents were in court Monday.
Howard Yan, a junior at U of I who is the vice president of the school's Chinese Students Association, was also in court to represent the group and support Zhang's family.
"(Christensen) looked OK, which kind of make me very angry and just not comfortable," he said.
The tragedy began on June 9th after Yingying Zhang missed the bus on her way to sign an apartment lease.
The Friday Zhang disappeared was a typical one for the visiting scholar. Police say she spent the morning doing research at Turner Hall and then went back to her apartment at Orchard Downs for lunch. She then left on a bus for an appointment to sign a new lease at a different apartment complex in Urbana. She tried flagging down a connecting bus but it did not stop. Zhang walked north to another bus stop nearby. That is when police say Brendt Christensen pulled up in his car and, after a brief conversation, Zhang got into the passenger seat. Zhang never showed up for her appointment at One North Apartments.
University of Illinois police are credited with aggressive detective work that lead authorities to suspect Brendt Christensen.
In what investigators believe to be a brazen move by suspected killer Brendt Christensen, the U of I doctoral student actually attended a vigil for Zhang in 2017. Christensen is seen in pictures with a mysterious woman and he was arrested the next day after allegedly admitting on a recording how he kidnapped Zhang, brought her back to his apartment and held her against her will. During a detention hearing on July 5, 2017, prosecutors revealed what is on the secret FBI recordings.
New security training in China began in 2018 for the thousands of students coming from there to the Champaign-Urbana campus.
Nearly 6,000 students from China are enrolled at the University of Illinois. That's more than any other U.S. college.
Kidnapping cases are usually charged by the state. ABC 7 legal analyst Gil Soffer explains why suspect Brendt Christensen was charged in federal court.
Brendt Christensen could face the death penalty if approved by the U.S. attorney general.