Bond Denied For Suspect In Zhang Disappearance

Defense attorney Tom Bruno.

Defense attorney Tom Bruno talks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Urbana, July 5th, which demonstrators supporting Yingying Zhang look on.

Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

Brendt Christensen, the man charged in the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang, was ordered held without bond Wednesday until his trial.

At a hearing in federal court in Urbana, assistant US attorney Bryan Freres said their evidence against Christensen in the abduction of in the abduction of Yingying Zhang included his being sighted among the crowd gathered for a June 27 walk in support of the missing Zhang.

In addition, Freres said investigators had surveillance audio of Christensen, in which the 28-year-old Champaign man described how he kidnapped Zhang, and how she fought and resisted him. Freres said other surveillance audio captured Christensen discussing the "ideal victim" for an abduction, and a threat he made against someone to whom he had made incriminating statements about the case.

That was enough for U-S Magistrate Judge Eric I. Long to order Christensen held without bond until his trial.

Christensen was arrested Friday, three weeks after Yingying Zhang was last seen, at a bus stop on the University of Illinois Urbana campus. Christensen recently received his master’s degree from the university. Zhang came to the university earlier this year as a visiting scholar from China. Investigators say they believe her to be dead, although her body has not been found.

Christensen’s next court appearance is a preliminary hearing on July 14th, where he could be formally arraigned on kidnapping charges, unless a grand jury indicts him before then.

Attorneys for Christensen say they were not surprised that Judge Long denied bond for their client.

“It’s rare that a judge would grant bail in a case like this, (but) we have to make the argument for bail", said attorney Evan Bruno. "My strongest concern for bail right now is the issue of being able to allow my client his right to participate in his own defense.” 

Christensen is being held under federal custody at the Macon County Jail in Decatur. Evan Bruno, and his father, attorney Tom Bruno, argued at Wednesday’s hearing that communicating with Christensen was difficult, because the jail did not permit telephone contact with the inmates, reqiuiring long trips for his attorneys for meet with him. They said that problem would get even worse when it became time to go over discovery evidence, which must stay in the attorneys' possesion.

But Judge Long said that was not something that could be considered as an argument for releasing a suspect on bail.

As they had at Christensen’s previous court appearance, demonstrators from the university’s Chinese community gathered in support of Yingying Zhang outside the federal courthouse in downtown Urbana. Some carried homemade signs, with message such as “Where Is Yingying?”

Shihao Han, a Chinese graduate student from out-of-town was visiting the area and observed the demonstration, although he did not take part himself. Han says abduction of Yingying Zhang has enflamed long-standing concerns among the Chinese about their safety in the US.

“And people believe that the US is not as secure as it is in China," said Han. "And I think this incident will escalate all those kind of concerns about the US being a 'not so secure' place for Chinese students.”

Han thinks those concerns could potentially lead to lower enrollments at the University of Illinois, and other similar college campuses.

UPDATE: This article was updated to include interviews with Tom and Evan Bruno and Shihao Han.  — JM 7/6/17

Story source: WILL