Accused killer of missing University of Illinois student tried to pick up another woman first, prosecutors argue

PHOTO: Yingying Zhang was visiting the US from China when she disappeared in June 2017. PlayCourtesy Zhang family
WATCH Loved ones make emotional visit to Yingying Zhang's memorial

Prosecutors argued on Tuesday that accused killer Brendt Christensen tried to pick up another young scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hours before Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese scholar visiting the university, went missing.

Dr. Emily Hogan, a University of Illinois graduate, testified today that she was approached by a man driving a black four-door vehicle around 9:00 a.m. on June 9, 2017. The alleged incident took place just hours before Zhang’s disappearance.

Christensen, 29, who is currently standing trial in federal court, is accused of kidnapping and killing Zhang, who was last seen on video entering a black Saturn Astra on June 9, 2017. Although he had pleaded not guilty, Christensen has now admitted to kidnapping and killing Zhang, according to his lawyer’s opening statement in court last week. The defense added that it took issues with "the way the government says the events occurred."

The young agriculture researcher was never seen or heard from again. Within days, investigators tracked the Saturn Astra back to Christensen.

Yingying Zhang, 27, was last seen entering a black Saturn Astra on June 9, 2017. Courtesy Zhang family
Yingying Zhang, 27, was last seen entering a black Saturn Astra on June 9, 2017.

Hogan testified that the stranger yelled to her through his car window that he was an "undercover cop" who was "doing some work in the area" and asked her if she could "answer some questions."

She testified that she approached the vehicle, and that the driver, who she said was wearing aviator sunglasses, flashed what seemed to be a police badge that she said she could see hanging from his neck. Hogan said the stranger then asked her to get in the car so he could ask her "some questions."

Hogan testified that she declined to get in the vehicle, and walked away, telling the jurors "he didn’t seem like a cop."

PHOTO: Dr. Emily Hogan is seen here on the stand on June 18, 2019, in this courtroom sketch. Courtesy Christine Cornell
Dr. Emily Hogan is seen here on the stand on June 18, 2019, in this courtroom sketch.

Prosecutors allege that Christensen was the stranger in the car who spoke to her and that she could have been his first intended victim.

Hogan testified that she then called the university campus police’s non-emergency line, and campus police put a bulletin out about the incident shortly after.

On June 12, 2017, after campus police had video of Zhang getting into a black vehicle, her disappearance became a suspected kidnapping case and the FBI got involved. That same day, FBI agents and campus police approached Hogan to see if her experience and Zhang’s disappearance were connected.

Two days later, investigators said they had identified Christensen as the driver of the car Zhang was seen getting into and asked Hogan to identity the stranger she had encountered from a series of five different driver's license photos. She picked out Christensen's photo.

When Hogan saw Christensen’s photo, she testified that she "felt sick," and told the FBI agents in the room, "That’s the man."

Brendt Christensens mug shot. Macon County Sheriffs Office
Brendt Christensen's mug shot.

When agents repeatedly questioned her on whether or not she was certain the man in the photo was the stranger she saw that day, Hogan testified that she "told them I was 60 percent sure."

Christensen’s defense team asked Hogan if she had any doubts about her description of the man she says tried to pick her up. Hogan testified that she did not.

Last week, prosecutors told the court that investigators had found aviator sunglasses in Christensen’s apartment, but no police badge has been found.

Multiple pictures from the apartment taken by authorities andshown in court included stains on Christensen’s mattress, a baseball bat and leather bondage straps on his bedroom floor, discarded hair from a vacuum cleaner and a knife found in his utility closet.

Prosecutors on Tuesday also called Charles Hill to the witness stand, who served time at the Macon County jail with Christensen as the defendant was awaiting trial. Hill, who pleaded guilty to one count of battery in a separate case and is currently on parole, alleged that during their time behind bars together, Christensen told him he pulled up to a girl, had a police badge, she got in, but he took a wrong turn and she got out. Hill said he relayed this information to a correctional officer, who told it to the FBI.

During a police interrogation, video of which was also played in court, Christensen did not admit to investigators that it was his car seen on the widely-spread surveillance video of Zhang getting into a black Saturn Astra. But Christensen did admit in the police interview to picking up a young Asian female matching the description of Zhang.

VIDEO: Investigators confront accused killer in missing student case Play
Investigators confront accused killer in missing student case

Christensen told investigators he let her out in a "residential area" shortly after she got in his car. He struggled to explain where he allegedly dropped her off, and could not provide a precise location to investigators.

Zhang's body has not been found.