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Attorneys in Chinese scholar kidnapping case ask to withdraw

Brendt Christensen, suspect in the kidnapping of visiting University of Illinois Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. Authorities said facts in the case indicate that Zhang is dead, although her body hasn't been found. | Macon County (Ill.) Sheriff's Office photo, distributed by the Associated Press

URBANA — Three attorneys have asked to withdraw from defending a man charged with kidnapping a University of Illinois scholar from China who is missing and presumed dead.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette reports that Tom Bruno and his sons, Anthony and Evan Bruno, say in a federal court filing that 27-year-old Brendt Christensen can’t afford to pay them for what could become a death-penalty case if there are additional charges, and that they and Christensen have agreed that he should have a court-appointed defense lawyer.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Friday. Christensen is being held in the Macon County jail in Decatur. His trial is set for February.

Yingying Zhang, 26, disappeared on June 9, weeks after arriving at the central Illinois campus. Investigators believe she is dead, but her body hasn’t been found.

At Christensen’s bail hearing in July, authorities said they believed Zhang was abducted after viewing surveillance video showing her climbing into a vehicle.

Yingying Zhang | Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Police Department via AP
Yingying Zhang | Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Police Department via AP

Authorities say Zhang was trying to hurry to an apartment to sign a lease and had been unsuccessful in flagging down a bus when a car stopped. The video shows a woman authorities have said is Zhang climb into the vehicle in Urbana, 140 miles southwest of Chicago.

Christensen was arrested a day after marching in a school vigil for the victim, and he was charged three weeks after federal agents heard him tell someone that he’d kidnapped Zhang and held her against her will.

Since then, details have emerged about Christensen, who had just earned a master’s degree in physics from the U of I this year, and the events leading up to Zhang’s disappearance.

According to authorities, a website that hosted an “Abduction 101” forum linked Christensen to the kidnapping of Zhang. Christensen’s phone was used April 19 to visit that website,, including to view threads titled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping,” according to a criminal complaint.

His trial is scheduled for February.

Contributing: Associated Press