PEORIA, Ill. (Reuters) – An Illinois man accused of kidnapping and killing a scholar visiting from China two years ago was obsessed with Ted Bundy and other serial killers, a federal prosecutor said as the man’s trial opened on Wednesday.
FILE PHOTO: Brendt Christensen, 28, arrested in connection with the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, on June 9, 2017, is shown in this booking photo in Champaign, Illinois, U.S., provided July 5, 2017. Macon County Sheriff’s Office/Handout via REUTERS
Brendt Christensen, 29, could face the death penalty for the abduction and presumed slaying in June 2017 of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about 130 miles (209 km) south of Chicago. Her body has not been found.
Christensen, a onetime master’s degree student at the university, has been charged with murder, kidnapping and lying to federal investigators. His trial is being held in Peoria, 90 miles (145 km) northwest of Champaign-Urbana.
Christensen’s defense lawyer told the court on Wednesday he did not dispute that his client killed Zhang.
Christensen appeared in court wearing a blue shirt, with his hands cuffed behind his back. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
“He kidnapped her, he murdered her, and he covered up the crime,” Eugene Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney for central Illinois, told the jury during opening arguments at the U.S. District Court.
He said Christensen was obsessed with Bundy, who killed dozens of women in 1970s, and other serial killers. He had researched online how to abduct someone before buying a very large duffel bag.
On the day of the murder, Christensen was driving around looking for a victim when he found Zhang, a student of small stature and with limited English, Miller said. Zhang had left her home in Nanping in southeastern China’s Fujian province to move to the United States only a few weeks prior, according to Illinois’ News-Gazette newspaper.
Christensen abducted Zhang to his apartment where she fought for her life as he hit her over the head with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head, Miller said.
“Her blood ran down the wall,” Miller said, as some of Zhang’s relatives sat in court listening to an interpreter through headsets. “Thousands of miles away from her parents, alone with a stranger, she breathes her last breath.”
Zhang came to Illinois to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university two months before she was reported missing on June 9, 2017.
Investigators were led to Christensen after surveillance cameras in Urbana recorded Zhang getting into a black car which authorities later traced to him, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed with the court by an FBI agent.
Under questioning by investigators, Christensen admitted giving Zhang a ride, but said he dropped her off in a residential area a few blocks from where he picked her up. Prosecutors said Christensen was also heard explaining how he kidnapped Zhang while he was under surveillance.
George Taseff, one of Christensen’s defense lawyers, told the jury he did not dispute that Christensen killed Zhang, which he called “a horrible crime.” But Taseff said he took “serious issue” with the government’s account of events.
“You need to know who Brendt was and what he was going through – a downward spiral in his life,” Taseff told the jury as he sought to protect his client from the death penalty.
Taseff described Christensen as a man who turned to alcohol and drugs as he struggled with an unhappy open marriage and a painful relationship with a girlfriend.
On the day of the killing, “he hits ground zero, rock bottom,” Taseff said, noting that Christensen had learned that his girlfriend was with another man that morning.
Christensen bought a bottle of rum from a liquor store at about 7:45 a.m. before driving around while drinking, Taseff said.
“At 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Taseff said, “he does the unthinkable.”
Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Peoria, Ill.; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Matthew Lewis