CHICAGO - A visiting Chinese scholar at a US university was kidnapped and killed by one of the school's graduate student teachers, the man's lawyer admitted in court Wednesday.
The revelation came during opening statements in the trial of Brendt Christensen, as attorneys on both sides of the closely-watched case revealed for the first time the gruesome details of his crime.
Christensen's attorney acknowledged the 29-year-old's guilt in the disappearance of Zhang Yingying and said the crux of the defence argument would be to spare him the death penalty.
"Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang," defence attorney George Taseff said in court, according to US media.
Christensen kidnapped Zhang near the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, a small midwestern city surrounded by farmland. She was last seen getting into the man's car in June 2017.
The prosecutor in the trial laid out the details of the brutal crime, saying Christensen raped Zhang, choked her, beat her head with a baseball bat, and decapitated her body to dispose of it in an unknown location.
"He claimed they will never find her," assistant US Attorney Eugene Miller told the jury, according to the Chicago Tribune newspaper.
Miller also revealed Christensen's claim that Zhang was his thirteenth victim, although there has been no evidence found to support it.
Christensen's defence attorney painted him as a man struggling with "a perfect storm" of substance abuse, a failing marriage and academic problems.
A lawsuit filed Friday also claimed Christensen had sought help for mental health problems - prompting the defence to ask for a delay, a request the presiding judge rejected.
MENTAL HEALTH QUESTIONS
Zhang, who was 26, was visiting the University of Illinois to conduct research. Christensen was a graduate student instructor in physics.
The trial has drawn intense interest within the small college community of Champaign and neighbouring Urbana.
Zhang's family travelled to the US after her disappearance and has been seen at the trial.
Prosecutors intend to present secret audio recordings of Christensen admitting to and boasting about the kidnapping.
Prosecutors also say Christensen previously had expressed interest in serial killers, practiced bondage and sado-masochism and had attempted to arrange a "consensual kidnapping" via a fetishist website.
They also claim Christensen posed as a police officer and attempted to lure someone else into his car earlier on the same day that Zhang went missing.
Attorneys representing Zhang's estate on Friday filed a civil lawsuit against Christensen and two university-employed social workers, claiming wrongful death and negligence and raising questions about Christensen's mental health.
The lawsuit says Christensen sought help for prescription drug and alcohol abuse, as well as homicidal and suicidal thoughts, and "an obsession with serial killers."
Social workers allegedly devised a treatment plan but did not alert the university that Christensen was a potential threat, according to the lawsuit.