YingYing Zhang Kidnapping Case - a few answers

YingYing Zhang, photo provided by her family

YingYing Zhang Kidnapping Case - a few answers
by Susan Basko, esq.

Update June 16, 2019:  Brent Christensen is on federal trial in Peoria, Illinois, USA, for the kidnapping and killing of YingYing Zhang.  In an opening statement, Christensen's lawyer admitted that Christensen killed YingYing Zhang.  The full transcript of that statement can be read in book format at this link:  https://issuu.com/wttwchicago/docs/jt_christensen__volume_8a__redacted

During the trial, prosecutors played a recording of Christensen and his girlfriend talking during a vigil that was held for YingYing Zhang after her disappearance.  The girlfriend, Tera Bullis, was cooperating with the FBI and wearing a wire to secretly record the conversation.  On the recording, Christensen bragged of killing YingYing and said he cut off her head.  Christensen also bragged that he had killed 12 other people before killing YingYing.  Christensen's defense attorney stated that the FBI found no proof that Christensen had ever killed anyone before he killed YingYing Zhang.  

From my point of view, I would tend to believe Brent Christensen that he killed 12 others before killing YingYing Zhang.  His methodology in killing YingYing was such that her remains have not ever been found, that there appears to be no witnesses to him bringing YingYing into his apartment in a busy apartment complex, and no witnesses that saw or heard the killing.  This seems rather remarkable in itself.  There are certainly 12 other women or others who have gone missing and have not been found during the years in which Christensen said he was killing, or whose killings during that time period have gone "unsolved."  Therefore, I tend to believe Christensen's statement that he is a serial killer.  In this trial, the prosecution is not trying to prove that Christensen is a serial killer and they have stated the only evidence they have that he killed 12 other people is that he said so to his girlfriend during the recorded conversation.   I think such statements should be taken at face value and believed.

Update July 15, 2017: A reward of $50,000 has been offered for the location of YingYing Zhang. Do you know where she is? If so, Crimestoppers in Champaign-Urbana can be reached by calling  217-373-TIPS.  The FBI can be reached at tips.fbi.gov or 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Update July 12, 2017: Federal Indictment of Brendt Christensen  for kidnapping of YingYing Zhang.  The evidence was presented to a Grand Jury and this indictment below was returned.  This starts the formal proceedings in the case.  Such a court case generally takes a year or more.  If convicted, Mr. Christensen would face life in prison.

People are still looking for YingYing Zhang, who is believed by the FBI to be dead. Since she has not been found, people are still hoping she will be found alive.  There were reports of someone that looked like YingYing being seen in Salem, Illinois.  A detective there tracked down surveillance videos from the store where people thought YingYing was seen, and found that the woman in the video was not YingYing.  The detective showed the evidence to YingYing's family so they could see for themselves that it was not their daughter.

People are still donating to a GoFundMe to allow YingYing's parents and boyfriend to stay in the U.S. and search for YingYing and attend the court hearings.

The use of instruments of interstate commerce is what allows the case to come under federal jurisdiction. Ordinarily, a kidnapping would come only under state jurisdiction, unless the kidnapper crossed state lines with the victim.  In this case, the prosecutor is claiming that the use of a car sold in a different state and a phone that is connected to the internet put the kidnapping under federal jurisdiction.  Those might be questionable grounds for jurisdiction, but it is not likely that the defense will object, since Illinois jurisdiction would likely subject Mr. Christensen to a much less fair trial and much worse prisons.  However, if it ends out that Mr. Christensen is charged or indicted in the murder of Ms. Zhang, Illinois law does not have a death penalty and federal law does have a death penalty. Death is listed as the federal penalty for a kidnapping that results in the death of any person.

Note that YingYing Zhang is believed by the FBI to be dead, but she has not been found, and people hold out hope that she will be found alive.

July 3, 2017. YingYing Zhang, a researcher from China working at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, was kidnapped on June 9, 2017.  Brendt Christensen, who received a Masters degree in Physics in May at the same University, has been charged in the kidnapping.  Plenty of information about the case can be found online at many news sources.  Here, I will address some things that are still questions in peoples' minds.

Keep in mind that Brendt Christensen is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.  Nothing here is mean to state that he is guilty.

If convicted, what sentence does Brendt Christensen face?  He would face a term of years or life imprisonment.  If the death of any person has resulted from the kidnapping, the penalty is life in prison or death.  The law says if the kidnapping results in the  death of "any person," and that can mean the person who was kidnapped, one of the kidnappers, a police officer who is killed working on the crime, any bystander, or any other person. If any person dies because of the kidnapping, the penalty is life in prison or death. If two or more people conspired to kidnap and one acted on the plan, the sentence would be a term of years or life in prison.  

Federal prison sentences are subject to sentencing guidelines.  Federal prison sentences have no time off for good behavior, other than there is about one month off a sentence for every six months served.  If a sentence is for "life," there is no possibility of parole.

Under what law is Christensen being charged?  He is being charged under federal law, under 18 U.S. Code § 1201 - Kidnapping, which you can read in full at the link.   The federal affidavit signed by the FBI agent listed at least two instruments of interstate commerce, which puts the kidnapping under federal jurisdiction.  The two listed were use of a car that was purchased in a different state and brought into Illinois, and use of the internet.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office has indicated the evidence in the case will go to a Grand Jury, which will decide whether to indict Brendt Christensen.  It is highly likely a Grand Jury will agree to whatever the prosecutor puts before them.  Note: A grand jury is a group of citizens that are impaneled to hear the evidence.  The proceedings are secret and not open to the public.  A prosecutor presents evidence to the grand jurors and they vote on whether to indict the person and on which charges.  If the grand jury does not indict a defendant who is in jail or on bail, the magistrate judge must be promptly notified so the defendant may be freed.  

The federal affidavit refers to another person being in the apartment at the time the FBI went to the apartment.  Who was the other person in the apartment?  I do not know, but my best guess is that it was Brendt Christensen's wife.  A report showed the name "Zortman" listed on the apartment mailbox, along with "Christensen."  Christensen is known to have a wife and things online show a "Michelle Zortman" in connection with a Brendt Christensen.  Further, the FBI affidavit states that the other person in the apartment gave the FBI permission for the private rooms in the apartment to be searched and for Christensen's phone to be seized.  Legally, a roommate could not give permission for Christensen's private room to be searched or for his phone to be taken, but a wife in Illinois could give that permission.  A wife in Illinois is considered equal "owner" of the apartment and its contents.

Does that mean the wife is in on the crime?  I have no facts on this topic, but my thought is most likely not.  June 9, 2017 was a Friday and perhaps the wife was out of town for the weekend when the crime happened - if, in fact, it is the wife who lives in the apartment.  

Where is YingYing?  The FBI has stated that YingYing is believed to be dead.  There are, no doubt, strong reasons for that belief.  However, there have been some surprising instances of kidnapped people who have shown up alive weeks to decades after being kidnapped.  Let's have faith that the FBI agents are doing everything they can to either find YingYing alive or find her remains.

Tips: If you have any info that might help find YingYing, you are encouraged to send it to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Reward: The Zhang family has reportedly removed the $40,000 reward and Crimestoppers itself offers only up to $1000 reward, which they are offering for the recovery of YingYing, whether alive or dead.  It seems like the reward amount should be more than $1000, but does not need to be $40,000.  More money might give people incentive to look.  Crimestoppers is still asking people to send in tips that might help find YingYing.  Crimestoppers in Champaign-Urbana can be reached by calling  217-373-TIPS.  Tips made to Crimestoppers are done anonymously. Note on July 8, 2017: One news outlet is now saying the reward is at $50,000 for the location of YingYing Zhang.

GoFundMe: As of this writing, over $120,500 has been donated to the GoFundMe for the family to help in their search for YingYing.  The family and YingYing's boyfriend no doubt have huge expenses and loss of income since they traveled from China to be in Urbana for the search, and now for court hearings.  People are donating as a way to show their support for the family and their sorrow over what happened to YingYing.

News reports state that Brendt Christensen read how to abduct a person on Fetlife, a fetish website.  Could the website owner or people who wrote the articles be prosecuted?
That is a really good, complex question.  I don't think either the owner or writers could be charged with "aiding and abetting," according to this guide for U.S Attorneys.  The elements of aiding and abetting, which are listed in the guide, do not appear to be present in writing or publishing a how-to guide.  It's also not going to be Criminal Conspiracy, since there would be no agreement to commit the abduction that had taken place between the Christensen and the writer of the article.

However, if any person was aware that Christensen was planning an abduction and told Christensen to read that article or sent him a link to it, then that person might possibly be charged with aiding and abetting.  Also, if this whole situation had taken place in a nation other than the U.S., the author and/or publisher of the abduction guide might be prosecuted, depending on which nation.  Here is a great article where this question about whether it is illegal to publish a how-to guide for committing crimes is answered by several lawyers.  The answers given are excellent and thought-provoking.  The answers also discuss lawsuits, which are civil, rather than criminal, and have a lower standard of proof.

1 comment:

  1. Grad students often act as property,pet,plant minders. BC might have access to any number of empty spaces even those minded by colleagues. BC seems to lie like a rug. LE seems to believe he took Yingying to his own apt. I think maybe elsewhere. If BC is so smart, it would be a place he is not easily linked to. Anyway keep the search for Yingying going!


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