Before a word of testimony was heard, any questions about Brendt Christensen’s guilt in the abduction and murder of a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois were answered.
“Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang,” defense attorney George Taseff said Wednesday in his opening statement to jurors in a Peoria federal courtroom. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang, and nothing we say or do during this phase of the trial is intended to sidestep or deny that Brendt Christensen was responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang.”
Christensen, 29, faces the death penalty if he’s convicted of abducting and murdering Zhang, a visiting researcher at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Taseff told the jury that Christensen “is on trial for his life in this case,” indicating his efforts will focus on sentencing.
If Christensen is found guilty in Zhang’s 2017 disappearance, a second phase will begin and the same jury will be asked to decide on the death penalty. Capital punishment was abolished in Illinois state courts in 2011 but remains an option in federal court.
In their opening statement, prosecutors alleged that Christensen was captured on tape bragging that Zhang was his 13th victim, though they gave no indication there was any credence to the claim. They described Christensen as a man who had become infatuated with serial killers and had plotted a kidnapping and killing in the months before he lured the 26-year-old Zhang into his vehicle on the university campus.
As the investigation gained steam, Christensen’s then-girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI. In one recording, Christensen described in detail how he had choked Zhang, split her head open with a baseball bat and then decapitated her, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller told jurors.
“He claimed they will never find her,” Miller said after recounting the grisly details of Zhang’s death.
During a recording made as Christensen and the girlfriend took part in a memorial walk for Zhang in late June 2017, he said Zhang was his 13th victim and “bragged” that the last serial killer “at his level was Ted Bundy,” Miller said.
Taseff cast doubt on those claims, saying his client was drunk at the time and noting there is no evidence linking Christensen to other killings.
“The evidence is going to show that’s just false,” Taseff said. “It’s not just false, there is no way that can be proven.”
The defense painted Christensen as a “brilliant” graduate student at the university who was dealing with substance abuse issues, a failing marriage and an increasingly troubled academic record. Taseff said Christensen reached his lowest point on June 9, 2017, the date of the alleged abduction.
Earlier that day, Christensen pulled up next to a graduate student and identified himself as an undercover police officer, according to Miller. He asked her if she would answer some questions and she said yes, but when he asked her to get into his car, she said no.
He drove off, and the woman called police to report the encounter and also described it in a Facebook post, Miller said.
Later, Christensen pulled up alongside Zhang, who had missed a bus. Again, he posed as an undercover police officer, the prosecutor said.
Rather than taking her to the apartment complex where she was headed to sign a lease, Christensen took Zhang back to his apartment and disabled her iPhone, Miller said. Christensen raped and beat Zhang in his bedroom, then choked her and carried her to the bathroom, where he hit her in the head with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat — “in his words, as hard as he could,” Miller said.
A surveillance camera captured Zhang talking to a man driving a Saturn Astra and then getting into the car. As one of roughly two dozen registered owners of an Astra in Champaign County, Christensen was questioned by police in the days after Zhang’s disappearance.
He initially told police he couldn’t remember where he was between 2 and 3 p.m. on the day Zhang went missing and asked if he could check his text messages, Miller said. Christensen then told police his girlfriend texted him around 1 p.m. and he didn’t respond until 4 p.m., so he must have been sleeping during that time, the prosecutor said.
Christensen ultimately said he stayed at his apartment all day Friday, sleeping and playing video games. Officers left but later returned when it was noted that the Saturn Astra captured by a security camera showed a defect, revealed earlier as a cracked hubcap. The officers then found the same piece missing from the hubcap on Christensen’s vehicle.
Questioned further, Christensen told police he’d mixed up the days and had picked up a girl but didn’t know it was Zhang. When he made a wrong turn, she “freaked out” and got out of the car, Miller said.
A cadaver-sniffing dog detected the presence of a dead body in the bathroom of Christensen’s apartment. Investigators seized mattresses, duct tape and Christensen’s laptop, and they found a dark stain under the carpet, Miller said. Zhang’s DNA was identified on swabs taken from a baseball bat, carpet, drywall and mattresses in Christensen’s apartment.
After opening arguments, witnesses who took the stand included Zhang’s long-term boyfriend, who said he planned to marry her in October 2017, and a police officer who visited Zhang’s apartment after she was reported missing.
Xiaolin Hou, who traveled from China for the trial along with Zhang’s parents, said he began dating Zhang in 2009, during their first year of college in China. He was first and she was second in their class when they graduated, he said Wednesday, testifying in English.
He last saw her in April 2017, before she left China for the U.S. The two talked almost every day, so Hou was alarmed when he couldn’t reach her on what in China was June 10, 2017. One of her colleagues at the university alerted him that she was missing, he said.
Hou called her phone repeatedly and tried to contact her other colleagues and friends, he said.
Zhang wasn’t the type to worry others, Hou said. “In my point of view, she must face some difficulty,” he said of his thinking when she went missing.
In his opening statement, Taseff told jurors that after three successful semesters in a prestigious doctoral program, “things began falling apart” for Christensen. In the summer of 2016, he dropped his doctoral program path and instead began pursuing a master’s degree. The following fall, Christensen’s grades were “straight F’s,” the attorney said.
Christensen was devastated when his wife began seeing another man and told him she wanted a divorce, Taseff said. Christensen didn’t have any friends locally and did not keep in close touch with friends or family in his native Wisconsin, the attorney said. He went online for companionship and met a woman, with whom he entered a consensual dominant-submissive sexual relationship, the attorney said.
On the day Zhang disappeared, his wife was in the Wisconsin Dells with her new partner, and Christensen’s new girlfriend was also “occupied” with another man, Taseff said. Christensen woke up that morning and went to a Schnucks grocery store to buy a bottle of rum, the lawyer said.
“A perfect storm has converged,” he said.
Christensen spent the day drinking and driving around, before he “did the unthinkable,” Taseff said.
Also testifying Wednesday were several University of Illinois police officers who investigated Zhang’s disappearance, Zhang’s professor and a marketing manager at the university housing complex where she was going to sign a lease. Prosecutors showed video in court Wednesday of Zhang missing a bus and running after it, captured by a camera on the bus.
They also showed security camera footage from a parking garage that showed a black Saturn Astra slowing down next to where Zhang stood on the sidewalk, and Zhang approaching the passenger-side door. She appeared to talk to the driver for several moments before she got in the car and closed the door, and the car drove away.
Upcoming witnesses include the woman who wore a wire and recorded conversations with Christensen. Taseff said the jury will see a recorded counseling session of Christensen from the spring of 2017, when he sought help for substance abuse after his wife said she wanted a divorce.