July 13, 2017 / 5:00 PM / 2 years ago

Illinois man indicted in kidnapping of Chinese scholar

CHICAGO (Reuters) - An Illinois man charged with kidnapping a missing Chinese scholar has been indicted on the same charge by a federal grand jury, authorities said, in a case that has been closely watched in China.

Brendt Christensen, 28, arrested in connection with the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, on June 9, 2017, is shown in this booking photo in Champaign, Illinois, U.S., provided July 5, 2017. Macon County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

Brendt Christensen, 28, arrested in Champaign, Illinois, was indicted for the June 9 kidnapping of Yingying Zhang, 26, after he was previously arrested and charged, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois said in a statement late Wednesday.

Authorities believe Zhang is dead although no body has been found.

Zhang, a scholar in photosynthesis and crop productivity, came several months ago to the University of Illinois, which draws thousands of students from China.

Zhang was recorded by surveillance video on June 9 waiting for a bus and then entering a black car that police connected to Christensen. He later told investigators he picked up an Asian female and dropped her off a few blocks later.

Federal agents put Christensen under surveillance and heard him “explaining” he kidnapped Zhang, court documents said. A search of the suspect’s cellphone also found he had visited a website that included threads on “perfect abduction fantasy,” and “planning a kidnapping,” according to the criminal complaint.

Christensen’s attorney, Evan Bruno, said by phone on Thursday that the indictment was expected and that his client is still presumed innocent. Bruno said there is information that remains unknown in the case, and the legal process is likely to be a long one.

“We’re not even through the previews yet of the movie, and this is going to be a long movie,” Bruno said.

As a result of Wednesday’s indictment, a preliminary hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long of the U.S. District Court in Urbana scheduled for Friday was canceled, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Christensen is scheduled to appear in court for an arraignment on July 20 in Urbana.

The university’s police department wrote in a tweet on Wednesday that officers are continuing their search for Zhang and the case is a “top priority.”

Christensen, who is married, graduated from the university in May with a master’s degree in physics, according to the university.

Audio captured after nearly two weeks of surveillance by authorities includes Christensen stating he had brought the victim back to his apartment and held her against her will, the criminal complaint said. It did not specify to whom he spoke.

Zhang’s case has garnered news coverage in China. If convicted, Christensen could face life in prison.

Additional reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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