Illinois man charged with Chinese scholar kidnapping to plead not guilty


CHICAGO (Reuters) – An Illinois man charged with kidnapping a female Chinese scholar who has been missing for more than a month will plead not guilty at a court hearing on Thursday, his attorney said.

Brendt Christensen, 28, is accused of abducting Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar to the University of Illinois from Southeast China, who disappeared on June 9.

Zhang, who had been studying photosynthesis and crop productivity, was last seen when a security camera recorded her getting into a black car that authorities linked to Christensen, according to court records.

Police believe Zhang is dead, although no body has been found.

If convicted, Christensen could face life in prison.

FILE PHOTO: Chinese student Yingying Zhang is seen in a still image from security camera video taken outside an MTD Teal line bus in Urbana, Illinois, U.S. June 9, 2017. University of Illinois Police/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

For many of the 300,000 Chinese students at U.S. colleges, as well as their parents back home, the presumed kidnapping of one of their countrywomen has confirmed their worst fears about coming to America to study.

Christensen, who is being held in jail in Decatur, Illinois, will enter his plea at a federal courthouse in Urbana, Illinois, on Thursday afternoon, his attorney, Anthony Bruno, said.

Sharon Paul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of Illinois, which is prosecuting the case, said the suspect’s not-guilty plea was expected and that an initial trial date will be set at the hearing.

Christensen, who is married and received a master’s degree in physics from the University of Illinois in May, told investigators he had picked up an Asian female and dropped her off a few blocks later.

He was placed under surveillance by federal agents who heard him talking about how he kidnapped Zhang, according to court documents. A search of his cellphone found he had visited a website that included threads on “abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping,” court records showed.

The university’s police department has said its search for Zhang is a top priority, and last week authorities increased the reward for details on Zhang’s whereabouts to as much as $50,000.

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Matthew Lewis

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