A federal grand jury now accuses the alleged kidnapper of Yingying Zhang of murdering her as well.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, a new indictment returned by the grand jury on Tuesday accuses 28-year-old Brendt A. Christensen of the kidnapping resulting in the death of Zhang on June 9th. That’s the day the 26-year-old visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois Urbana campus was last seen. The FBI has said they assume Zhang is dead, but her body has yet to be found.
The indictment was annonced by Acting US Attorney for the Central Illinois District, Patrick D. Hansen, and FBI Special Agent In Charge, Sean Cox, Springfield Division.
The new indictment supercedes the previous one. It accuses Christensen of first planning to, and then deliberately killing Zhang in the course of kidnapping her, and doing so "in an especially heinous, cruel or depaved manner" that involved "torture or serious physical abuse".
The new indictment also accuses Christensen, a former University of Illinois graduate student, of lying to investigators when he told them he had dropped Zhang off after giving her a ride. Instead, the indictment alleges that he took Zhang back to his apartment.
If convicted of the new charge of kidnapping resulting in death, Christensen could face the death penalty.
Prosecutors had stated in September that they planned to seek additional charges that could carry the death penalty, causing Christensen's attorneys to withdraw from the case. Christensen is now represented by a public defender.
Christensen has been held in the Macon County Jail in Decatur since his arrest on the initial kidnapping charge on June 30th. His trial, initially scheduled for September, is currently set to begin February 27, 2018. But a date for Christensen's arraignment on the new charges has yet to be set. Christensen pleaded not guilty to the earlier charge of kidnapping.
The abduction of Yingying Zhang has received worldwide attention, especially in China and other countries with sizable Chinese communities. Zhang's family has traveled from China to Champaign-Urbana in the hopes to learning her fate. Both the family and the FBI posted rewards for information about Zhang's disappearance.
A campus bus stop in Urbana has been continuously decorated with flowers and other items by well-wishers, ever since prosecutors released surveillance video showing Zhang getting into Christensen's vehicle there on June 9th. She has not been seen since.