Day 2: Suspect bought Drano after Chinese U of I scholar death, according to testimony

A photo shown during court shows Brendt Christensen at a store purchasing liquor. (United States District Court, Central District of Illinois)

PEORIA, Ill. — A former University of Illinois doctoral student on trial in the killing of a visiting scholar from China bought Drano and garbage bags three days after the slaying, according to testimony Thursday.

The detail came during the second day of the federal murder trial of Brendt Christensen in the June 2017 death of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang.

During opening statements Wednesday, a federal prosecutor, Eugene Miller, told jurors in grisly detail what authorities believe happened to Zhang. Miller said Christensen took Zhang to his apartment and raped, choked and stabbed her in his bedroom. Miller said Christensen then dragged Zhang into his bathroom and pummeled her in the head with a baseball bat before decapitating her.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Christensen is alleged to have done with the garbage bags — or the Drano. The liquid commonly used for unclogging sinks, tubs and other drains contains sodium hydroxide or lye, which can be used for dissolving organic matter.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette reported that an FBI agent testified about the massive search in Illinois for Zhang that extended from local parks to a coal mine 30 miles (48 kilometers) away but didn’t produce any evidence of what happened to her. She’s never been found and is presumed dead.

Authorities say Christensen posed as an undercover officer to lure Zhang into his car on June 9, 2017, as she was on her way to sign a lease off campus in Urbana, 140 miles southwest of Chicago.

Christensen was arrested on June 30, 2017, his birthday, after his girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI in an attempt to capture incriminating statements by Christensen.

It’s the first federal death-penalty case in Illinois since the state struck capital punishment from its books on grounds death-penalty processes were too error-prone.

The trial was moved to Peoria in central Illinois after Christensen’s lawyers said pretrial publicity would have made it impossible for the 29-year-old former physics student to get a fair trial in the Champaign area, where the 45,000-student university is located.

Thursday’s testimony came a day after defense attorneys, hoping to spare Christensen the death penalty, acknowledged he killed Zhang.

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