July 20, 2017 / 4:22 PM / 2 years ago

Illinois man charged with Chinese scholar kidnapping pleads not guilty

URBANA, Ill. (Reuters) - An Illinois man charged with kidnapping a female Chinese scholar who has been missing for more than a month pleaded not guilty during an appearance in a U.S. court on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO - 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. Courtesy Macon County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

Brendt Christensen, 28, is accused of abducting Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar at the University of Illinois from southeastern 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.

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.

Appearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long in a gray, striped jumpsuit, Christensen said he understood the charges and the possibility that he could receive a life sentence if convicted. He also told Long he was taking antidepressants.

The judge set a trial date of Sept. 12. Kidnapping is a federal crime.

Christensen’s attorney, Anthony Bruno, told reporters that he expects the trial may last a year. “This will become a very long case,” he said.

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 her whereabouts to as much as $50,000.

Zhidong Wang, an attorney for Zhang’s family, said they believe Christensen is guilty and do not fully understand the U.S. judicial process.

“They feel like, ‘How dare he plead not guilty,’” Wang said. “I told them the process and that they have to be patient.”

Additional reporting and writing by Julia Jacobs in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis

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