Events leading up to Yingying Zhang’s disappearance explained in opening statements


Leaving the courthouse Wednesday, members of Yingying Zhang’s family walk behind Zhang’s fiancé, Xio Linhou who she planned to marry in October 2017. Opening statements began Wednesday morning following the testimonies of nine witnesses brought in by the government.

By Samantha Boyle, News Editor

After nine witness testimonies and the defense telling the jury they won’t deny the fact that Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, the court adjourned at around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Four University of Illinois Police Department officers testified in Wednesday’s court opening, as well as an employee from the ONE Illinois apartment complexes, a University professor, a telecommunicator, a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District employee and Yingying Zhang’s fiance, who she planned to marry in October 2017.

In his opening statement, Eugene Miller, attorney for the U.S., told the jury about Zhang’s time at the University, how she was continuing her research, planning to get a doctorate, marry her then fiance and eventually go back to China to teach.

“While Yingying was on campus pursuing her dream,” Miller said. “(Christensen) was there pursuing something dark.”

Miller said they believe after Christensen picked up Zhang and took her back to his apartment on June 9, 2017, he bound, raped, tortured and eventually killed her, hitting her over her head with a baseball bat, stabbing her in the neck and decapitating her.

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    Christensen’s lawyers do not deny this, but Christensen still pleads not guilty to all his charges. George Taseff, defense attorney, said in his opening statement nothing he or the rest of the attorneys on the defense say will deny the fact Christensen is responsible for Zhang’s death.

    However, the defense asks the nature of his relationship with his wife be taken into consideration as well as his state of mind at the time.

    Submitted photo
    Yingying Zhang pictured during summer 2017.

    Before Zhang’s disappearance 

    Christensen and his wife had just moved to Champaign and had no other friends or family in the area but each other, Taseff told the jury. However, when Christensen’s alcohol habits worsened, his wife told him she would leave him. Christensen went to the Counseling Center two days later to get help for his alcohol and substance abuse stations  they were “ruining his life.”

    In his counseling sessions, he admitted to intrusive thoughts about harming himself and other people, even admitting to making plans to carrying out some of these thoughts.

    The Counseling Center staff suggested he find further treatment at a different facility.

    At this time, Christensen’s wife was dating other people and Christensen found another girlfriend as well, using OK Cupid.

    The week of June 5, 2017, Christensen learned his wife would be going on a weekend retreat with her new boyfriend. They were going to a resort in Wisconsin she and Christensen celebrated their honeymoon, Taseff added.

    This is the last week Zhang would be seen.

    June 9, 2017 

    Zhang was on her way to tour the One North apartment complex in Urbana on June 9, 2017 but was running about an hour late. Coming from her apartment in Orchard Down, Zhang needed to take two buses to get to her destination but missed the second bus and could not catch up in time to get on it.

    Zhang never made it to her apartment tour, and her colleagues were not able to reach her through text or call.

    Christensen, who at first made false statements to the FBI saying he dropped Zhang off after she freaked out when he made a wrong turn, actually took Zhang back to his apartment.

    Although Zhang is presumed dead, her remains have never been found.

    Brian Bauer
    A memorial for Yingying Zhang on Goodwin and Clark.

    After Zhang’s disappearance and presumed death 

    At a memorial walk on June 29, 2017, Christensen’s girlfriend wore a wire to record her conversations with Christensen to help the FBI with their case.

    Christensen is recorded bragging about what he did to Zhang and how she was his thirteenth victim. Although he is recorded saying this, Taseff said he had been drinking that day and there is no evidence to link him to any previous cases.

    On June 30, 2017, Christensen was arrested on the charges of false statements and kidnapping resulting in death.

    Photo of Brendt Christensen, alleged kidnapper and killer of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. Christensen was arrested on June 30, 2017.

    The start of the trial and looking forward 

    Members of Brendt Christensen’s counsel exit the U.S. Courthouse in Peoria around 7 p.m. June 3. The courts began jury selection on June 3 for Christensen, who allegedly kidnapped and murdered visiting scholar, Yingying Zhang.

    After delaying his trial several times and moving its location from Urbana to Peoria, it finally began with the jury selection process June 3.

    During the witness testimonies on Wednesday, the jury heard some of the police officers talk about their background and experience in law enforcement and what their involvement was with Zhang’s disappearance.

    They heard about how Zhang’s supervisor, professor at the University Kaiyu Guan, first learned about her disappearance and going to the police to initially report her missing. They were able to hear from the One North marketing manager at the time of Zhang’s disappearance. She texted him to let him know she’d be late, but she never ended up showing up.

    Her fiance said they talked on the phone or through social media every day but eventually was not able to get ahold of her anymore.

    Judge James Shadid said the trial is moving ahead of schedule with the nine witnesses who testified Wednesday. Four more witnesses are planned to be questioned on Thursday and eventually witnesses called by the defense will testify.

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