Brendt Christensen, a 27-year-old PhD student researcher from Champaign, is accused of kidnapping Yingying Zhang, a missing University of Illinois visiting scholar.
Authorities said in an affidavit that they believe Zhang is dead. The affidavit in support of the charges provides chilling details; it says that authorities examined Christensen’s phone and alleges that he had accessed a website entitled “Abduction 101” and sub-threads that were called things like “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”
According to the University of Illinois police, Zhang, a graduate student from China, disappeared on June 9. Her disappearance was big news in China as well as the United States as the Urbana community mobilized to find her.
At first, authorities had said they weren’t sure whether she was abducted, but that has now changed.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Authorities Accuse Christensen of ‘Explaining that He Kidnapped Zhang’
Authorities had placed Christensen under surveillance before his arrest.
On June 29, 2017, “while Christensen was under law enforcement surveillance, agents overheard him explaining that he kidnapped Zhang. Based on this, and other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter, law enforcement agents believe that Ms. Zhang is no longer alive.”
2. Christensen Is Accused of Driving a Vehicle That Zhang Was Seen Getting Into
Early on in the case, police had released information about a black Saturn Astra vehicle that video captured Zhang getting into before she vanished. Then, they told the public they had identified the driver while saying little more. People had said they combed through motor vehicle records of all people who own such a vehicle in the city. This, they now say, led them to Christensen.
The affidavit filed in support of the complaint alleges that on June 9, “Christensen was driving the black Saturn Astra which was observed on security camera video as it stopped next to Zhang at the corner of W. Clark St. and N. Goodwin Ave., at approximately 2:00 p.m. Zhang is observed on video entering the front passenger side of the vehicle. The vehicle then pulled away and proceeded northbound on N. Goodwin Ave.”
The affidavit provides a detailed accounting of the last moments Zhang is seen.
Police said that, on June 9, Zhang went to UI’s Turner Hall where she conducts research and then returned to her apartment for lunch. At 1:39 p.m., she sent a text message from her cell phone to a manager of a different apartment complex in Urbana, Illinois, where she intended to sign a lease. She said she was running behind, but would arrive about 2:10 p.m.
At 1:35 p.m., she was observed on video boarding a public bus. She exited the bus and tried to flag down another one, but it continued past her without stopping. Zhang was observed on video walking to an intersection and standing at a bus stop. At 2 p.m., a black Saturn Astra, driven, police say, by Christensen was observed on video passing Zhang at the bus stop and then circling back to her location, according to the affidavit.
She was observed speaking with the driver through the passenger window for about one minute, before entering the car. At 2:38 p.m,, the apartment manager sent Zhang a text message and received no response.
Since Zhang was last seen in the video entering the car, said the news release issued by authorities, “the FBI, the University of Illinois Police Department and the Illinois State Police and local law enforcement have worked around the clock to locate Ms. Zhang and to investigate her disappearance.”
3. Christensen Is a Graduate Student Researcher at the Same University Where Zhang Worked
According to his LinkedIn page, Christensen is a PhD Student Researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he has worked there for 3 years and 7 months. That’s the same university where Zhang was a visiting scholar.
Zhang was an international scholar who focused her research in the areas of photosynthesis and crop productivity. She had only arrived at the University of Illinois in April 2017.
Christensen described his current research as: “Transport in thin flakes of Molybdenum Disulfide (MoS2)” and “Investigating topological insulators/superconductors, such as probing the pairing symmetry of Bismuth Selenide (Bi2Se3).”
Fabrication techniques used included “Mechanical exfoliation of thin flakes” and “CVD (chemical vapor deposition) oven cleaning of substrates.”
4. Christensen Is a Graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Where He Was in the Physics Club
Christensen’s LinkedIn page says that he graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in Physics in 2013, and he was in the Physics club at that school.
5. Zhang’s Disappearance Galvanized the Community & Her Father Came From China to Try to Find Her
Zhang’s father, Zhang Ronggao, “traveled from Nanping, China, to do what he could to help find his daughter,” reported CNN.
A GoFundMe campaign to help Zhang’s family with living expenses while the search continues has raised almost $100,000.