Suspect due in court in scholar kidnapping

By WANG LINYAN and ZHANG RUINAN in New York | | Updated: 2017-07-20 05:18

The Illinois man indicted by a federal grand jury in the kidnapping of visiting Chinese scholar Zhang Yingying is scheduled to be arraigned at 3 pm on Thursday in a federal courthouse in Urbana, Illinois.

Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign, Illinois, who has a master's degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), was arrested on June 30 on a charge of kidnapping Zhang, 26, who attended the same school.

Zhang has not been seen since, and police believe that she is no longer alive.

During the arraignment at the US District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Urbana, the judge is expected to read the indictment to the suspect and ask the suspect if he has a plea, said Wang Zhidong, a lawyer representing members of Zhang's family.

The arraignment also will address a bail application by the suspect, and if he pleads not guilty, the court will set a trial date, Wang said.

Christensen's lawyers have said he will plead not guilty.

Amid the intense interest in the case in China, the US and around the world, a defense attorney and retired professor, Steve Beckett, joined Wang this week (double check) to offer free legal services to members of Zhang's family.

"I will bring a criminal law perspective to the team to help Zhang's family," said Beckett, who was director of trial advocacy at the University of Illinois College of Law for 31 years before he retired in May.

Wang said Beckett is an old friend of his law firm partner.

"I believe his extensive knowledge of criminal law and legal procedures from his 44 years of experience as a practicing attorney and law professor will offer Zhang's family better legal consultation," Wang said.

Beckett said he heard about the case through one of his former Chinese students at UIUC.

"I've never seen such a weird case before, especially when an international student from the university is involved," he said. "We don't want to see such things happen again."

Thomas Bruno, one of Christensen's lawyers, said on Tuesday that his son, Anthony, will represent Christensen in court on Thursday.

"We will make sure the defendant is well represented and his rights are protected," said Bruno, who is also deputy mayor of Champaign.

The indictment unsealed on July 12 charges that Christensen kidnapped Zhang and held her captive on June 9. If convicted, he would face a maximum penalty of life in prision.

China continues to keep a close eye on the case and strongly expects the US court to conduct a fair trial to bring justice to Zhang and her family, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang on July 14.

China will continue to provide assistance to members of Zhang's family, Geng said.

On July 14, Crime Stoppers' representatives and members of Zhang's family announced in Champaign that the reward for clues leading to Zhang's whereabouts was raised to $50,000. With a $10,000 reward posted by the FBI, the reward money now totals $60,000.

Wang said Zhang's family members would be at the hearing on Thursday, and they are still hopeful that she is still alive.

"Yingying's father said that the family would not go back to China until they find Yingying," Wang said on Tuesday.

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