Earlier abduction attempt reported on day Chinese scholar went missing at U. of I.



Lifeng Ye, mother of Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who authorities say was kidnapped near a bus stop on campus June 9, sits with her son Xinyang Zhang, right, and Xiaolin Hou, Yingying’s boyfriend, after a news conference at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign, Ill., on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The young University of Illinois graduate student was walking to a bus stop one morning last June when a clean-cut man wearing aviator sunglasses pulled up in a black sedan and flashed a badge.

He said he was a cop doing “some undercover work in the area” and asked the woman to get in the car to answer some questions, according to a recent court filing. When she refused, the man told her to call police if she saw anything suspicious in the area and then drove away.

Later that day, Chinese visiting scholar Yingying Zhang was captured on surveillance footage waiting near a bus stop on the north end of campus, about a half-mile from where the first woman had her encounter. A black Saturn Astra sedan pulled up to Zhang, and she could be seen talking to its driver before getting in the vehicle before it drove off.


Zhang has not been seen or heard from since.

The striking similarities between the two incidents — which occurred just four hours apart on June 9 — were revealed Monday in a filing by attorneys for Brendt Christensen, a former U. of I. doctoral student charged with kidnapping, torturing and killing Zhang in a case that rattled the Champaign-Urbana campus and sent shock waves through China.

Christensen’s attorneys have asked a federal judge to keep testimony about the first woman’s encounter out of his upcoming trial, including that she picked out a photo of Christensen from an array of six shown to her by the FBI.

According to the defense filing, however, the woman couldn’t say with certainty it was Christensen because the man who’d approached her was wearing sunglasses. She did say that of the six photos, Christensen “shared the most characteristics” of the man because of his “short, dark hair and tan face,” the filing said.

The motion was among a flurry of pretrial filings that bring sharper focus to the evidence that prosecutors intend to bring in the case scheduled to go to trial Feb. 27 before U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce in Urbana.

Among the other details in the motions filed by the defense was that Christensen’s then-girlfriend secretly recorded at least seven conversations for the FBI over two weeks, including one at a campus vigil for Zhang on June 29.

Christensen was captured on audio recordings describing his “ideal victim” as he pointed out people in the crowd, prosecutors have previously said. Other surveillance recordings captured Christensen admitting to having kidnapped Zhang and describing how she fought back as he held her against her will, prosecutors have said.


After Christensen was arrested on kidnapping charges the day after the vigil, he allegedly made incriminating statements to a 10-time felon also locked up in the Macon County jail, the motions revealed. He also told his wife he’d been having “disturbing dreams” before Zhang’s disappearance — statements his lawyers want barred as confidential marital communications.

Christensen, 28, is charged with kidnapping resulting in death as well as two counts of making false statements to the FBI when he was questioned about Zhang’s disappearance. Although Zhang’s body has not been found, prosecutors have said she is not believed to be alive.

Recent court filings show that the FBI used canine search teams from as far away as Lake and McHenry counties to help search for her body.

Prosecutors have said they found evidence on Christensen’s phone showing he’d visited a sadomasochism fetish website with discussion threads on kidnapping fantasies. A superseding indictment filed last year included the special finding that Christensen killed Zhang “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse to the victim” and that the crime occurred after “substantial planning and premeditation.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has until Feb. 1 to decide whether to seek the death penalty — a move that would likely delay the trial for months.

In addition to a half-dozen motions seeking to keep evidence out of the trial, Christensen’s attorneys on Monday filed a long-shot bid to move the trial outside of the Central District of Illinois — possibly to Chicago — arguing that the intense publicity drawn by the case has made it impossible for Christensen to get an impartial jury.

They also petitioned the court to throw out the kidnapping charge, arguing that his alleged actions do not meet the requirements for the federal offense.

The prosecution previously argued that Christensen’s use of a car and phone during the alleged kidnapping were tools of “interstate or foreign commerce,” and therefore the crime was under federal jurisdiction. Christensen’s attorneys countered that there is no evidence he used his car to travel out of Illinois or used his phone — such as to make a ransom call — to commit the alleged kidnapping.

Defense attorneys also argued that the government cannot establish that Christensen lured, tricked or physically forced Zhang into his car — and therefore the alleged crime doesn’t meet the legal definition of a kidnapping.

Zhang, 26, who began her research appointment in April 2017, was on her way to sign a lease at an apartment building the afternoon of June 9 and unsuccessfully tried to flag down a bus before walking to another stop.

Shortly after, federal authorities allege, Christensen approached Zhang in his car and lured her inside. Surveillance video from a nearby parking garage captured the exchange in which Zhang could be seen speaking to the driver for several moments before getting into the front passenger seat.

One of Zhang’s professors reported her missing by that evening after several calls and texts went unanswered.

The investigation focused on Christensen after police concluded his Saturn Astra was the car seen in the video. He initially told the FBI he was home all day playing video games on the day Zhang disappeared.

Shortly before midnight on June 14, agents returned to the Champaign apartment Christensen shared with his wife armed with a search warrant for his car, according to a defense filing Monday.

Christensen, who answered the door in sweatpants, was taken to the FBI field office to be interviewed, while his wife signed a consent form allowing agents to search the home. They left after seizing computers, hard drives, a digital camera and laptop computers, according to the filing, which sought to exclude the evidence from the trial based on improper search procedures.

When he was questioned the second time, Christensen changed his story, telling agents he got the date mixed up. He said he was driving on campus, came across an Asian woman looking distressed and offered her a ride because she said she was late to an appointment, authorities have previously said.

Christensen said the woman panicked after he made a wrong turn, and he let her out of his car a few blocks from where they met. Meanwhile, police searched his car and determined that the area where Zhang would have been sitting had been cleaned in a way to conceal evidence, FBI agents alleged in court documents.

Christensen eventually invoked his right to an attorney, telling agents, “I really don’t want to talk no more without a lawyer,” according to the defense motion to bar his statements.

But several days later, his girlfriend, who was already cooperating with the investigation, “engaged in a series of telephone texts” with Christensen that his lawyers alleged amounted to another interrogation because the questions were being fed to her by the FBI.

Then, on June 29, Christensen attended the campus rally for Zhang with his girlfriend, who unbeknownst to him was wearing an FBI wire. At about 6:30 p.m., Christensen sent her a text message saying he was standing in a crowd on the steps of the university’s Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, according to the filing.

Later, television footage of the event showed Christensen walking in the march with his arm around the woman.

In seeking to bar the recordings made by Christensen’s girlfriend, his lawyers said in their motion that there were indications she was illegally pressured or threatened by the FBI to cooperate against him.

To bolster that claim, Christensen’s attorneys said text messages the woman sent from her phone on the day she agreed to wear the wire show that she was distraught over her situation, including one message where she said she “went into shock” while talking to Christensen.

“I’m just upset,” the woman wrote in one message to an unidentified person, according to the defense motion. “The FBI is going to take me in again soon … for more questioning.”

According to the defense filing, the messages show “an emotionally unstable individual who appears to lack the mental capacity to knowingly and voluntarily agree to anything, let alone something as serious as cooperating with the FBI in a kidnapping investigation.”


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