A man in Champaign, Illinois, Brendt Christensen, 27, was arrested by the FBI on Friday, June 30, for allegedly kidnapping a visiting Chinese grad student, Yingying Zhang, 26. On June 9, Zhang disappeared, only a few weeks after she had arrived in Illinois, to pursue studies in agricultural and environmental sciences. The FBI said in a statement that evidence they have points to Zhang no longer being alive.
ABC News reported that Yingying Zhang was last seen three weeks ago, on June 9, at a bus stop near the University of Illinois campus. CCTV footage at the bus stop shows a black Saturn Astra, with Zhang getting into the front seat of it. On Thursday, agents who had Christensen under surveillance heard the suspect admit he had abducted Zhang. Based on their surveillance and other evidence, authorities with the FBI stated they believe Zhang is probably not alive any longer.
According to the Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette, Zhang got into the Saturn Astra four-door hatchback at about 2 p.m. in Urbana. She was picked up “at the corner of West Clark Street and North Goodwin Avenue.” Christensen claimed he had let her out of his car “just a few blocks away.”
When Bradley Ware, a FBI spokesman for the agency’s Springfield office, was asked if he knew of any new leads as to where Zhang’s body might be, he declined to comment on the matter. There are reportedly 18 vehicles registered in Champaign County which look similar to the one Zhang got into when she was picked up at the bus stop in Champaign, Illinois.
When investigators saw the black Saturn Astra belonging to Christensen in the parking lot of an apartment complex on June 12, they began to focus their investigation on him. The investigators were struck by Christensen’s answer that he could not recall what happened in his life the day Zhang was last seen alive, on June 9. The investigators conducted an initial search of Christensen’s car, but did not retrieve any evidence from it.
When the investigators later were pouring over the CCTV footage, they tried to determine how closely the car in the footage matched the one owned by Christensen. They found out that both the Saturn in the footage and the one Christensen owned had a cracked hubcap and a sunroof.
When the investigators interviewed Christensen a second time, and pointed out the two cars looked identical, the suspect admitted he had driven around the University of Illinois campus on June 9 and had given a ride to an Asian female who told him “she was late for an appointment.”
He claimed that after he made a wrong turn, the woman panicked, and he let her out of his vehicle. Court records indicate that investigators who searched Christensen’s Saturn said it looked like the front passenger seat, where it is believed Zhang was sitting when she got into the car, “had been cleaned.”
On June 16, authorities placed the suspect from Champaign, Illinois under constant surveillance. On June 17, the FBI announced it was offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information about the whereabouts of the missing Chinese student. They got a break in the case on Thursday, June 29, when they heard Christensen say on an audio recording that he had taken Zhang to his apartment, where he said he had “held her against her will.”
There are more Chinese students enrolled at the University of Illinois, approximately 5,000, than at any other college in the United States. Zhang’s disappearance and apparent kidnapping has made the parents of some Chinese students at the University of Illinois worried that their children might not be safe attending colleges in America.
A criminal complaint against Christensen alleges that in April, he used his phone to surf the internet and check out online forums like “Perfect abduction fantasy,” “Abduction 101,” and even one called “planning a kidnapping.” Zhang had a position at the University of Illinois that would last for a year, “at the university’s department of natural resources and environmental sciences.”
Everyone who knew Zhang called her “bright and outgoing.” She sang and played the guitar, and was in a band in China called “Cute Horse.”
Zhang already had a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School, one of the most prestigious universities in China. At the University of Illinois, Zhang had been conducting research on crop photosynthesis. The research involved using drones to take aerial photographs of fields in Illinois.
Christensen’s first court appearance will be on Monday, July 3, in a federal court in Urbana, Illinois. It has not been mentioned yet by authorities if Christensen has an attorney or if the court will appoint him one.
Following the arrest of Brendt Christensen in Champaign, Illinois, in connection with the kidnapping of a visiting Chinese grad student, Yingying Zhang, she still remains missing. Evidence and statements collected by the FBI and police reportedly appear to indicate Zhang was murdered, though Christensen has not been charged with that, at this point in the ongoing investigation. Further charges could be pending, as the investigation progresses and new evidence is discovered.
By John Samuels
Photo Courtesy Facebook