News Local/State

Suspect In Yingying Zhang Disappearance Faces Bond Hearing Wednesday

Brendt Christensen

Brendt Christensen made his first court appearance Monday in the disappearance of University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang. He is being held in the Macon County Jail in Decatur. Macon County Jail

A hearing is scheduled Wednesday to determine whether the Champaign man charged with kidnapping in the disappearance of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang will be held without bond.

Brendt Christensen made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Urbana on Monday.

Wearing a jail jumpsuit, Christensen said little during his brief appearance in the tiny, packed courtroom, only indicating to Judge Eric Long that he understood the charge against him.

FBI investigators arrested Christensen Friday. They say they believe the 26-year-old Zhang is dead, but have not found her.

Visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang has been missing since June 9. FBI investigators believe she is dead.

University of Illinois Police

Christensen is charged with kidnapping and is scheduled to appear for a hearing on that charge July 14, Department of Justice spokeswoman Sharon Paul said.

"And if convicted, the penalty is up to life in prison,” she told the dozens of reporters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Urbana after Monday's appearance.

If he is indicted by a grand jury on further charges, that hearing would be called off, Paul said, declining to elaborate.

Christensen's attorney, Evan Bruno of Urbana, said outside court that he had spent only a little time with his client, who has not yet entered a plea.

"Now is the point in time when a lot of really good, really old laws kick in to make sure that the process is fair, to make sure that the presumption of innocence is maintained while these proceedings go on," Bruno said, declining to discuss how he had come to represent Christensen. “My job is to make sure that that happens. There’s a long road ahead. I encourage everyone to be patient, to keep an open mind, wait 'till the evidence comes in.”

Paul declined to discuss the case against Christensen or the ongoing search for Zhang, who arrived in the United States in April and was last seen on campus June 9 climbing into a car driven by an unidentifed person.

Investigators said in the complaint that charged Christensen that he had been recorded during surevillance explaining how he kidnapped Zhang and held her against her will. Christensen graduated from the university in May with a master's degree in physics.

The search for Zhang has generated intense interest among some students and faculty, particularly the University of Illinois' large population of Chinese students.

A large crowd gathered outside the courthouse, some bearing signs, in support of Zhang. Champaign resident Gang Wen, who said he is neither a student nor a university employee, was one of them. Wen held a sign that read "Justice for YY Zhang and her family!" He said he came to the courthouse to draw attention to the case.

“That is going to be a big danger for our safe community, and we must stop this kind of crime,” he said.

The case has also become the subject of news coverage in China and among regional and national American outlets. The dozens of reporters gathered to cover Monday's court appearanance include Chinese journalists.

Christensen is being held by U.S. Marshals at the Macon County Jail in Decatur. The Marshals service makes decisions about where to hold inmates in its charge, Paul said.

Sharon Paul, DOJ spokeswoman, addresses more than 100 members of the media outside federal court in Urbana after Brendt Christensen's initial court appearance. He is charged with kidnapping in the case of missing University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

David Mercer/Illinois Public Media