Federal authorities have arrested and charged a 28-year-old man with kidnapping Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois who disappeared three weeks ago and now is presumed dead.
Brendt Christensen, a former Ph.D. candidate who had studied physics at the university, was arrested late Friday, according to a news release from the Department of Justice. A federal complaint also was filed Friday in the Central District of Illinois accusing him of kidnapping Zhang from the Urbana-Champaign campus the afternoon of June 9.
Christensen’s former academic advisor, professor Lance Cooper, associate head for graduate programs in the Department of Physics, was part of the committee that admitted Christensen to the program in fall 2013.
“Nobody saw this coming,” Cooper said Saturday.
Zhang, 26, arrived at the University of Illinois in late April to contribute to research in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. Her appointment as a scholar was through April 2018.
She originally was from Nanping, a small city in the Fujian province in southeast China; a university spokeswoman, Robin Kaler, said Zhang was considering entering a doctoral program at U. of I.
Tina Chu, acting executive director of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, said Zhang’s father, boyfriend and aunt came from China to Illinois during the search.
Chu met the family and helped translate for them at a vigil held in Chinatown on June 24, and described them as “good, hardworking people.” They had a very positive attitude that they would find Yingying, Chu said.
Chu has not seen the family since then, but said the news must be devastating.
“This is their hope,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re going to take it.”
“It is scary, shocking news for the Chinese in China,” she said. “People are talking, saying, ‘You’ve got to be careful, watch out for your safety.’ It makes us feel really insecure.”
Some 5,600 Chinese are enrolled at U. of I., more than at any other U.S. college, according to government data.
“This is a senseless and devastating loss of a promising young woman and a member of our community,” U. of I. Chancellor Robert Jones said in a statement. “There is nothing we can do to ease the sadness or grief for her family and friends, but we can and we will come together to support them in any way we can in these difficult days ahead.”
The day she disappeared, Zhang was at Turner Hall, where she conducted her research, between 8:30 a.m. and around 12:30 p.m., according to the affidavit. She then went back to her apartment for lunch, authorities say.
Zhang left shortly after, heading to a different apartment complex in Urbana to sign a lease. She texted the building manager around 1:39 p.m. to say she was running late, according to the affidavit, and planned to arrive around 2:10 p.m.
Video showed Zhang boarding a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District bus around 1:35 p.m. She took the Teal line bus from Orchard Downs and exited at West Springfield and North Mathews avenues at 1:52 p.m., police said.
Four minutes later, Zhang was seen on video trying to flag down another MTD bus, but it passed her without stopping. The affidavit states the bus was a Limited Line bus and probably did not stop because Zhang was standing on the wrong side of the street to board.
Unable to catch the bus, Zhang walked north to the intersection of North Goodwin Avenue and West Clark Street, where she stood at another designated MTD bus stop on the southeast corner. According to the MTD website, the Goodwin and Clark stop is designated for the Illini Limited weekday daytime route, which runs only during university breaks and summer sessions.
Around 2 p.m., a black Saturn Astra, which authorities say was driven by Christensen, was seen on surveillance video from a nearby building driving east on West University Avenue, then turning onto Goodwin and then to Clark Street, past where Zhang was standing. The Astra then reappeared on surveillance video driving west on West Main Street, then turning back onto Goodwin.
Authorities previously said the car appeared to be circling the area before approaching Zhang.
Minutes later, the car pulled off to the side of the road where Zhang was standing. Video from a parking garage across the street showed Zhang speaking with the driver for about a minute before she got into the front passenger seat, authorities say. The car then continued driving north on Goodwin Avenue.
Zhang was not seen or heard from after that, police said. The apartment manager texted her at 2:38 p.m. and got no response, according to the affidavit.
An associate professor reported Zhang missing to U. of I. police at 9:24 p.m. A responding officer spoke to the professor and several of Zhang’s friends, all of whom said they knew she was heading to sign the apartment lease but had not been able to contact her for several hours. The officer went to Zhang’s current apartment, which was locked and vacant, the affidavit states.
Police determined that there were 18 four-door Saturn Astras registered in Champaign County, one of which was in Christensen’s name. Police went to Christensen’s home the night of June 12 and asked him where he was when Zhang was last seen June 9. Christensen initially said he could not remember, then told police he was either sleeping or playing video games all day. Police searched the car but did not locate or take anything from it, the affidavit states.
On June 14, police noted in the surveillance footage that the Astra had a sunroof and a cracked hubcap on the front passenger side. Authorities returned to Christensen’s home in the 2500 block of West Springfield Avenue and saw that his Astra also had a cracked hubcap consistent with what police saw in the footage. Police, who had previously noted that Christensen’s car also had a large sunroof, determined that his was the vehicle seen in the surveillance, the affidavit states.
Authorities interviewed Christensen on June 15 while the FBI and U. of I. police searched his car. In the interview, Christensen admitted to driving around the U. of I. campus when he saw an Asian woman standing at the corner, looking distressed, the affidavit states. Christensen said he drove up to her and offered her a ride after she said she was late to an appointment. The woman then tried to show Christensen where she needed to go through the map on her phone. Christensen claimed he made a wrong turn at some point and the woman panicked, then he let her out of his car a few blocks from where he picked her up, the affidavit states.
In a search of the car, authorities discovered that the front passenger side where Zhang would have been sitting “appeared to have been cleaned to a more diligent extent than the other vehicle doors,” the affidavit states, adding that investigators believed this was done to conceal evidence.
Authorities began surveilling Christensen on June 16. On June 29, police heard him say on an audio recording that he kidnapped Zhang, brought her back to his apartment and held her in his apartment against her will, according to the affidavit.
“Based on this, and other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter, law enforcement does not believe (Zhang) is still alive,” the affidavit states.
Federal authorities listed Christensen as 27, but the federal complaint gives his birthday as June 30, which would make him 28 as of Friday.
He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Urbana on Monday morning.
Bin Xu, 22, a senior from Zhejiang, China, who is studying statistics, said he wished the school would emphasize safety to international students who may be disoriented from being in a new country and naive to potential dangers. Orientations are in English, which can be hard for international students to understand, and Xu said the school forgets how hard it is for students to simply get around the large campus.
Xu recalled a time when he was confused about how to get across campus on a particularly snowy day. He said he walked on the street that night to avoid slipping on the ice on the sidewalk and became exasperated to the point where he would have accepted a ride from a stranger.
“You shouldn’t be blaming Yingying Zhang for riding in someone’s car,” Xu said in Mandarin. “The school also can’t run away from this. The school’s responsibility is huge. I feel really sorry for Yingying Zhang’s parents.”
Zhang’s boyfriend has said that she was cautious and wouldn’t normally get into a car with a stranger unless duped or forced.