By Chris Kenning and Julia Jacobs

 

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday ordered an Illinois man charged with abducting a Chinese scholar held without bond in a first court appearance that drew hundreds of demonstrators with signs calling for justice.

 

Brendt Christensen, 28, was arrested by FBI agents in Champaign, Illinois, on Friday on charges of kidnapping in the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, on June 9, according to University of Illinois Police. Authorities believe she is no longer alive.

 

The U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement that agents overheard Christensen while he was under surveillance "explaining" how he kidnapped Zhang. A search of his cell phone found he had visited a website that included threads on "Perfect abduction fantasy" and "planning a kidnapping," according to the criminal complaint.

 

Audio captured after nearly two weeks of surveillance includes Christensen stating that he had brought the victim back to his apartment and held her against her will, the complaint said. It did not specify to whom he said that.

On June 9, Zhang went to sign a lease for an apartment in Urbana, but missed a connecting mass transit bus, according to an affidavit. As she waited for the next bus, a motorist in a black Saturn Astra pulled up and she got in the vehicle.

Christensen's appearance Monday in U.S. District Court in Urbana drew crowds of supporters, including some holding signs reading "We are with you Yingying."

Crowds also marched in support last week during the search for Zhang, a scholar in photosynthesis and crop productivity who came to study at the University of Illinois two months ago. Photos show Christensen was present at the rally, university officials confirmed on Monday.

Christensen's attorney, Evan Bruno, said his client had not been indicted, adding: "He's presumed innocent of these charges. There's a lot that the public doesn't know."

If convicted, Christensen could face life in prison.

The federal court clerk's office said a detention hearing will be held on Wednesday and a preliminary hearing was set for July 14.

Christensen at first said he could not recall his whereabouts on June 9, the day of Zhang's disappearance, according to the criminal complaint. Days later, Christensen told the FBI he offered an apparently distressed Asian female a ride, but dropped her off a few blocks later after she became panicked, possibly believing they had taken a wrong turn.

A search of his car showed the front passenger door appeared to have been cleaned more diligently than other doors, indicating a possible attempt to conceal evidence, the complaint said.

The case has rattled the Chinese community in the area. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had more than 5,600 Chinese students enrolled as of last fall, according to university data.

Her father and other family members traveled from China to Champaign to join in the search for Zhang.

Christensen graduated with a master's degree in May, the university said.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning and Julia Jacobs; Editing by Dan Grebler)