Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang at University of Illinois, defense says in opening statements

Eric Horng Image
Thursday, June 13, 2019
Defense admits Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang at U of I
Brendt Christensen's attorneys admitted during opening statements that their client killed Yingying Zhang, a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois.

PEORIA, Ill. (WLS) -- During opening statements in the trial of a man accused of killing a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois Wednesday, the defense for Brendt Christensen acknowledged that he kidnapped and killed her.

Christensen has not changed his plea or reached any deal with his prosecutors. Instead his attorneys, possibly because of the strength of the prosecutor's case, appear to be laying the groundwork for the sentencing phase. Christensen faces the death penalty if convicted.

Christensen, 29, a former physics grad student at U of I, is accused of picking up 26-year-old Yingying Zhang two years ago at a campus bus stop, then raping and torturing her in his apartment before secretly disposing of her body. Her body has never been found.

"Maybe we can have some closure, but family only has one wish: to find Yingying," said Dr. Kim Tee, Zhang family friend.

Wednesday morning, the family of Zhang, who've come from China, arrived at the federal courthouse in Peoria a few minutes after her accused killer arrived to court in a white county sheriff's van.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller started his opening statement by saying bluntly, "He killed her, he murdered her, he covered up his crime."

Christensen sat expressionless as prosecutors painted him as a man fascinated with abduction and serial killers, including Ted Bundy and the character in the book "American Psycho."

Miller detailed the government's evidence: Surveillance video showing Christensen picking up Zhang at an Urbana bus stop, a positive DNA match of Zhang's blood in Christensen's Champaign apartment and on a baseball bat he owned, and finally, Christensen's own words in recordings obtained by his then-girlfriend, who agreed to wear a wire for the FBI.

"The FBI doesn't know where she is," he allegedly said. "I'm apparently very good at this."

"I would say the evidence list really shows some detective work, what looks to me pretty good detective work, they pieced together this case, all parts of it," said ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer.

ABC7 Legal Analyst Gil Soffer discusses the trail of a man accused of killing a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois.

The jury could barely catch its breath before the defense dropped its own bombshell.

"Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Jhang. Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang," Defense Attorney George Taseff told the jury.

Christensen teared up as his defense painted a portrait not of a monster, but of a man struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, whose wife was leaving him and who was failing in school.

"In that mental state he launches into a new relationship based on roleplay," Taseff said.

The defense suggested Christensen's depictions of torture and murder were the ramblings of a drunk man.

"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," Soffer said.

The jury heard from a number of witnesses Wednesday, including campus police officers, who are helping establish a timeline. Zhang's boyfriend Xiaolin Hou testified that he was shocked when his girlfriend went missing.

"I called again and again," he said.

Prosecutors said Christensen had disabled Zhang's phone.

It's clear the defense plans to attack the credibility of Christensen's ex-girlfriend, who obtained the wire recordings, essentially accusing her of drawing fantasies out of Christensen and saying details the prosecution laid out were the confessions of a man who was drunk and role-playing.


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