PEORIA, Ill. (Reuters) - An Illinois man who prosecutors described as obsessed with serial killers was found guilty on Monday of the kidnapping and decapitation murder of a Chinese graduate student two years ago and could now face the death penalty.
A U.S. District Court jury in Peoria deliberated for less than two hours before convicting Brendt Christensen, 29, of all charges in the disappearance and death of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Zhang was reported missing on June 9, 2017, two months after coming from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university. Her remains have never been found, but prosecutors said her DNA was matched to blood later found in three spots inside Christensen’s bedroom.
The case has been closely watched by Chinese media, Chinese government officials and Chinese students studying in the United States. Relatives publicly appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump for additional resources to help find Zhang two months after she vanished.
Federal prosecutors trying Christensen under U.S. kidnapping laws have said they planned to seek the death penalty if he was found guilty.
Investigators were led to Christensen through surveillance video footage captured in Urbana, 130 miles (210 km) south of Chicago, showing Zhang getting into a black car that later was traced to the defendant.
Prosecutors said Christensen took Zhang to his apartment, where she fought for her life as he bludgeoned her with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head.
Details of the crime, including the decapitation, were revealed by Christensen himself in conversations with his then-girlfriend secretly recorded for FBI agents investigating the case before his arrest, according to trial testimony.
Defence lawyers conceded during the trial that their client had killed Zhang, though they disputed particulars in prosecutors’ account of events.
During closing arguments on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller told jurors that Christensen had spent up to six months planning the murder and had chosen Zhang because she was small of stature and appeared an easy target.
“He raped her, he murdered her, and then spent the next three weeks trying to cover up the crime,” Miller said.
In their own summation on Monday, Christensen’s lawyers suggested they hoped to persuade the jury to spare his life during the penalty phase of the trial, which was set to begin July 8.
“This is not the ultimate decision. You have to realise there’s more,” attorney Elisabeth Pollock told jurors.
Christensen, a onetime master’s student at the university, sat expressionless in court as he was pronounced guilty on the charge of kidnapping resulting in death, as well as two counts of lying to federal investigators, capping an eight-day trial.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors characterized Christensen as having a fascination with serial killers, including Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women during the 1970s.
The victim’s father, Ronggao Zhang, read a statement outside the courthouse on Monday on behalf of the family thanking the jury for “this step towards justice.”
“We have missed Yingying tremendously in the past two years,” he said. “As of today, we still could not imagine how we could live the rest of our lives without her.”
Reporting by Bob Chiarito; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Frank McGurty, Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler