Federal authorities in the United States have arrested a man suspecting of kidnapping Zhang Yingying, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Zhang, missing now for more than three weeks, is presumed dead.
28-year-old Brent Christensen, a former Ph.D. candidate at the university, has been accused of kidnapping Zhang on the afternoon of June 9th. Those at the university who knew Christensen were shocked by his arrest, explaining that he was “completely normal.”
Zhang arrived in the US in May. A Fujian native with degrees from Peking University and Sun Yat-sen University, Zhang was visiting the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, planning to enter the school’s doctoral program and eventually land a career as a professor in China so that she could support her family financially.
Friends and family members have described Zhang as both bright and outgoing. Back in China, she sang and played guitar in a band called Cute Horse and loved to belt out Bette Midler’s “The Rose.”
On the day that she disappeared, she told her friends that she was going to sign a lease on an apartment with a local agency. Surveillance video showed her getting into a black Saturn Astra. She hasn’t been seen since.
Federal authorities say that the Saturn Astra belongs to Christensen. The Chicago Tribune describes the steps of their investigation:
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.
Authorities also searched Christensen’s home and seized electronics, including his phone, according to the affidavit. The phone’s search history revealed visits to a bondage and sadomasochism fetish website called FetLife and a forum called “Abduction 101,” as well as subthreads titled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping,” according to the affidavit. The searches to those websites had occurred several weeks before the alleged abduction, around April 19, authorities wrote in the affidavit.
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.
Over the past month, Zhang’s disappearance has captured the attention of many in both the US and China. Her case was labeled a “national priority” by the FBI with a $50,000 reward offered for information that led to her location. Zhang’s father, boyfriend and aunt all traveled to the university to await updates on the case. “We will forgive you,” Zhang’s father addressed his daughter’s kidnapper last week. “But please, let Yingying go.”
Now, the family seems past forgiveness with Zhang’s boyfriend telling the media that he hopes his girlfriend’s kidnapper will suffer the “harshest punishment.”
The arrest of Christensen has left the University of Illinois community stunned. Christensen’s former academic advisor, Professor Lance Cooper, said that there was nothing in his past that made him suspect that Christensen was capable of doing something like this.
“He was completely normal, there were no complaints about his teaching,” Cooper said. “He was on the excellent teaching list, so he was well-reviewed by his students.”
Christensen is scheduled to appear in federal court for the first time on Monday morning.
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