Visiting Chinese scholar feared dead as suspect arrested in Illinois

Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana went missing June 9. Brendt Christensen, a 28-year-old former Ph.D candidate, was arrested Friday and charged in the kidnapping and presumed death of Zhang. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois police

July 2 (UPI) — A graduate student has been charged with kidnapping a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois who disappeared three weeks ago and is presumed dead.

FBI agents arrested Brendt Christensen, a former Ph.D candidate, on Friday, his 28th birthday, in the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Zhang, who arrived in April at the school, was on her way to sign a lease at an apartment when she disappeared June 9.

Zhang, 26, was recorded on surveillance getting into the suspect’s black Saturn Astra around 2 p.m. after apparently missing her bus. In a federal complaint, authorities said they also captured an audio recording of Christensen on Thursday in which he said he had brought Zhang back to his apartment and held her against her will.

A search of the suspect’s house produced Christensen’s phone that showed that in April he visited a forum entitled “Abduction 101,” which included sub-threads “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping,” the federal complaint said.

In a second interview, he admitted to picking up Zhang. He said that while trying to navigate using her cellphone map, Christensen told her that he thought he had taken a wrong turn and that Zhang “panicked.” Christensen then said he let her out of the vehicle in a residential area a few blocks away.

The federal complaint said law enforcement “does not believe [she] is alive.”

Christensen will remain in law enforcement custody pending his initial federal court appearance Monday in Urbana.

Christensen studied physics in the graduate program at the university and previously was a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, according to his LinkedIn page.

“Nobody saw this coming,” said Lance Cooper, Christensen’s former academic adviser, told The Chicago Tribune. Cooper was part of the committee that admitted Christensen to the program in 2013.

“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.”

Zhang’s father arrived from China last month and had joined a march in Urbana in support of the missing scholar.

Chinese Consul General in Chicago Hong Lei visited Zhang’s family in Illinois on Saturday morning.

“We will push for continuous search of Yingying by the police, follow the case and offer help to Yingying’s family in follow-up matters,” Hong told China’s Xinhua news agency.

Zhang, originally was from Nanping, a small city in the Fujian province in southeast China, was considering entering a doctoral program at U of I, university spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

She was among 5,600 Chinese students enrolled at U of I, more than at any other U.S. college, according to government data obtained by USA Today.

Tips leading to an arrest or her location are eligible for a reward up to $40,000 through Crime Stoppers or $10,000 through the FBI.

GoFundMe campaign to assist Zhang’s family had raised $112,343 of a $150,000 goal as of Sunday morning.


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