CHICAGO >> Hundreds of people gathered outside a federal courthouse today as the suspect in the kidnapping of a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois made his first appearance since being arrested last week.
During the nine-minute hearing, 28-year-old Brendt Christensen acknowledged to the judge that he understood his rights, but did not say anything else. U.S. Magistrate Eric Long ordered Christensen held without bond in the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang. Authorities say facts in the case indicate the 26-year-old Zhang is dead, although her body hasn’t been found.
Long ordered Christensen to return to the court in Urbana on Wednesday to determine bond. A preliminary hearing was set for July 14, but that would be waived if a grand jury returns an indictment before then. The federal kidnapping charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to a U.S. attorney’s office spokeswoman.
The (Champaign) News-Gazette reported that about 45 people attended the hearing this morning, with another crowd in the courthouse lobby and yet more people across the street, many chanting “Justice for Yingying.”
After the hearing, Christensen’s attorney Evan Bruno said he has talked to Christensen a few times, but that “this case is very young and we haven’t had a really full opportunity to develop everything yet.”
Bruno asked the public to “be patient, to keep an open mind, wait till the evidence comes in.”
He described his client as a “very intelligent guy” who has no criminal history. “He has a speeding ticket, I think, but that’s about it,” Bruno said.
Bruno added that Christensen is married, but that he and his wife do not have any children, according to the newspaper. He said Christensen, who recently earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Illinois, is not employed but has been looking for a job.
Zhang, who received her master’s degree in environmental engineering in China last year and hoped to eventually land a professorship and help her family financially, went missing on June 9. Her father traveled from China to Illinois in June for the search.
Authorities announced that they believed she was abducted after viewing surveillance video showing her climbing into a vehicle. Authorities charged Christensen on Friday after federal agents heard him tell someone that he’d kidnapped Zhang and held her against her will.
Authorities say Zhang was trying to hurry to an apartment to sign a lease and had been unsuccessful in flagging down a bus when a car stopped. The video shows a woman authorities have said is Zhang climb into the vehicle in Urbana, 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Since then, details have emerged about Christensen and the events leading up to Zhang’s disappearance.
According to authorities, a website that hosted an “Abduction 101” forum linked Christensen to the kidnapping of Zhang. The federal complaint says Christensen’s phone was used April 19 to visit that website, FetLife.com, including to view threads titled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”
FetLife describes itself as “the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community,” stressing in online policy statements that it is a place for consenting adults to trade advice and images of themselves, and to arrange to meet. The acronym BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. Users provide their ages, genders and roles they wish to play, but otherwise remain anonymous.