News Local/State

FBI Believes Missing Scholar Is Dead, Arrests Champaign Man

Visiting scholar Yingying Zhang.

The FBI says it believes visiting scholar Yingying Zhang of China, who has been missing since June 9, is dead. University of Illinois Police

 The FBI has made an arrest in the Yingying Zhang case, and the agency believes that the 26-year-old University of Illinois visiting scholar from China is dead.

The FBI said in a news release that agents arrested 27-year-old Brendt Christensen of Champaign, a former University of Illinois graduate student, on Friday. The criminal complaint (embedded below) against Christensen says he has been charged with kidnapping. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday in federal court in Urbana.

According to the criminal complaint, investigators surveilling Christensen recorded him on Thursday explaining how he had kidnapped Zhang and brought her back to his apartment, holding her against her will. She was last seen on June 9, on security-camera video climbing into a black Saturn Astra on campus and being driven away by an unidentified driver.

The complaint indicates investigators found a matching car registered to Christensen, and interviewed him twice before obtaining the recording. The complaint says that in the second of those interviews, on June 15, he said he had picked Zhang up but dropped her off a short distance away. Investigators began monitoring Christensen the next day.

In addition, the complaint says that after obtaining a warrant to search Christensen's cellular phone and found that in April it had been used to visit a website that included threads on "Abuction 101," "Perfect abduction fantasy" and "planning a kidnapping." 

The complaint does not indicate precisely why investigators believe Zhang is dead, only that "facts uncovered during the investigation" led them to that conclusion.



The search for Zhang drew the attention of the campus community, through a series of forums and, on Thursday, a march and concert for Zhang.

Her father, aunt and boyfriend traveled to the area from China during the search, attending events and making public appeals for her return.

On Friday, Urbana-Champaign campus Chancellor Robert Jones said in a message to campus that people should mourn together.

"There are no words that can explain why or how such a terrible thing should happen nor is there anything I might say that will ease the grief of any of you who knew her," Jones said.

But he also called on the university community to celebrate Zhang, and said a memorial would be held on campus Saturday night, though the details are not yet available.

The University of Illinois confirmed that Christensen graduated with a master's degree in physics in May. 

UPDATE: Chancellor Jones sent another campus wide email Saturday morning postponing the memorial service until a later date.

As we all begin to work through our sadness and grief, the family of Yingying Zhang has asked that we give them some privacy and space to do so as well. Out of respect for their needs and in accordance with their wishes, we will not be holding a campus wide memorial today. 

We will plan a public community and campus event celebrating her life in the future, but for now, I simply ask that you keep her family in your thoughts as they face these first days without Yingying.