Missing Chinese Scholar
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Yingying Zhang was a visiting scholar in the U.S. from China when she was killed in 2017 in Illinois.

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PEORIA, Ill. • As federal prosecutors on Wednesday shared with jurors grisly details of how they claim a former University of Illinois doctoral student kidnapped a visiting scholar from China, then brutally beat and killed her, defense attorneys intent on sparing their client a possible death penalty offered an exceptional claim: He did it.

Opening statements began in the federal death-penalty trial of Brendt Christensen, a case that is being closely watched by Chinese students across the U.S. Christensen is accused of luring 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car in June 2017 as she headed to sign a lease off campus.

Prosecutors told jurors Wednesday that Christensen took Zhang to his apartment where he raped, choked and stabbed her in his bedroom. They said Christensen later pummeled her in the head with a baseball bat in his bathroom before decapitating her.

With Yingying Zhang’s father sitting just a few feet away on a courtroom bench, prosecutor Eugene Miller also revealed for the first time that Brendt Christensen was captured on an FBI wiretap bragging that Zhang had been his 13th victim. But the prosecutor didn’t say if authorities believed him.

Miller told jurors that Christiansen became obsessed with serial killers in the months before for he kidnapped the 26-year-old Zhang.

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