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.”