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Family Of Yingying Zhang Awaits New Year And Trial Of Accused Kidnapper

Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media
A Christmas wreath, bells and lights were among the features of a memorial to Yingying Zhang, on the evening of Dec. 27th. The memorial is set up near the bus stop on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, where she was last seen.

The family of Yingying Zhang hopes they will get answers about her disappearance when her accused kidnapper goes on trial next year. For the accused, Brendt Christensen, it is the chance to get his day in court. Christensen's federal trial on the charge of kidnapping resulting in death is scheduled to begin February 27th, 2018.

Yingying Zhang was last seen June 9th when surveillance video recorded her getting into a vehicle at a bus stop on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana. She has not been seen since. Zhang had come to the U of I from China as a visiting scholar a couple of months earlier.

Prosecutors say that Zhang got into the vehicle of Christensen, a former graduate student at the university. They say he forcibly abducted her and took her to his apartment. They say Christensen initially denied any contact with Zhang, then later said he had merely given "an Asian female" (in the words of the criminal complaint document) a ride, and dropped her off a few blocks later. The prosecutors say their court case will point to records from Christensen's smart phone that show he followed threads about kidnapping and abduction fantasies on online fetish networking sites, prior to Zhang’s disappearance.

While authorities have said they believe Yingying is dead, her family traveled from China to the U.S. in hopes that she might still be alive, or that they could at least bring her body back for burial. Back in July, Yingying’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, spoke of Yingying in the present tense at a news conference.

“Yingying is our pride and joy,” said Hou. “She is smart, hardworking, brave and kind. Her dream is to complete her education and return to China and become a university professor, support her family and share her knowledge with students for years to come. We know Yingying wants to be with us and we will not leave the United States without her.”

Christensen, though his attorneys, has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, but has not given any public explanation to counter the charges from prosecutors. Court-appointed public defender Tom Patton told reporters in September that Christensen will have his own story to tell to a jury.

"I ask everyone to recall that he is presumed innocent and the allegations against him are only allegations,” said Patton. “And all you’ve heard so far are one of the parties’ versions of the facts.”

Patton was appointed to represent Christensen after his original attorneys withdrew from the case --after asecond, superceding indictmentwas handed down against the defendant, accusing him of kidnapping resulting in death. The death penalty is a possibility in such cases in federal court. Tom Bruno with Bruno Law Offices said that Christensen’s family would not be able to afford their services in a capital case.

Yingying Zhang’s disappearance has become an international story. Christensen’s federal court appearances, and news conferences held by Zhang’s family regularly attract large numbers of reporters, many from China and Chinese-language media. Attention was focused on safety issues for the thousands of Chinese and other international students at U of I. And the university itself became involved in looking after the Zhang family during their stay in Champaign-Urbana.

Despite their vow not to leave the U.S. until they found Yingying, the Zhang family returned to China in November, citing concern for the health of Yingying’s mother. But they are expected to come back for Christensen’s trial. Meanwhile, Judge Colin Bruce has given prosecutors until February 1st to disclose whether they plan to seek the death penalty for Christensen.

Christensen has remained at the Macon County Jail in Decatur since his arrest in June.

A tree next to the bus stop where Yingying Zhang was last seen on surveillance video has been continuously decorated by her family and well-wishers, even since Christensen’s arrest. On Christmas Eve, new pictures of the tree were posted on the“Find Yingying” Facebook page showing the tree decorated with bells, a Christmas wreath and a string of lights set against a backdrop of snow.

The posting’s text describes Yingying in spirit-like terms: “You may be traveling around the world like a fairy and may want to come back to say hello. We put the light and the bell on the tree so you can see and hear the way. Merry Christmas, Yingying. Merry Christmas, all.”