By MICHAEL TARM AP Legal Affairs Writer
PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — As a federal prosecutor on Wednesday shared with jurors grisly details of how authorities claim a former University of Illinois doctoral student kidnapped a visiting scholar from China, then beat her to death with a baseball bat, defense attorneys intent on sparing their client a possible death penalty offered an exceptional claim: He did it.
Opening statements began in the death-penalty trial of Brendt Christensen, a case which is being closely watched in China and by Chinese students across the U.S. Christensen is accused of posing as an undercover officer to lure 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car on June 9, 2017, as she headed to sign a lease off campus.
Christensen, who is over 6-foot, took Zhang to his apartment where he raped, choked and stabbed her in his bedroom, as the 5-foot-4 Zhang tried to fight him off, prosecutor Eugene Miller said in his opening statement to jurors Wednesday. Christensen then dragged Zhang into his bathroom, and pummeled her in the head with the bat before decapitating her, Miller said.
With Zhang's father, a part-time trailer-truck driver from China, sitting just a few feet away on a courtroom bench, Miller also revealed for the first time that Christensen was captured on an FBI wiretap bragging that Zhang had been his 13th victim. But the prosecutor didn't offer additional details, nor did he say if authorities believed him. Miller appeared to broach the issue in order to demonstrate Christensen's quest to be known as a serial killer.
It was not immediately clear if authorities were investigating Christensen's alleged claim. Prosecutors have said they won't comment on the trial while it's ongoing.
Christensen became obsessed with serial killers in the months before for he kidnapped Zhang, Miller said, adding that Christensen was engrossed by the novel "American Psycho" and was intent on slaying someone in order to fulfill a goal of infamy that he'd set for himself. Zhang, who had only been in Illinois for two months in what was her first experience living outside China, aspired to become a professor in her home country to help her working-class parents.
"While Yingying was on campus pursuing her dreams, he was on campus pursuing something dark — something evil," Miller said, standing at a podium in front of jurors.
A federal judge moved the trial to Peoria in central Illinois after Christensen's lawyers said pretrial publicity would have made it impossible for the 29-year-old former physics student to get a fair trial in the Champaign area, where the 45,000-student university is located. The university has more than 5,000 Chinese students, among the largest such enrollments in the nation.
Zhang was unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, Miller told jurors, saying Christensen had determined on June 9 to kill someone that day and had been cruising in his car looking for a victim. Earlier, he approached a different young woman, also saying he was an undercover police officer. When he asked her to get into his car to answer some questions, she refused.
Prosecutors allege Christensen took advantage of Zhang's small stature and lack of English fluency after seeing her by a bus stop, pulling up and successfully talking her into car. She had just missed a bus — even running after it — while she was on her way to sign the lease off campus in Champaign's sister city Urbana, 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.