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Illinois suspect indicted in Chinese scholar kidnapping

By Wang Linyan in New York (China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-07-13 10:32

A federal grand jury in Illinois on Wednesday indicted a 28-year-old former physics doctoral student in the kidnapping of visiting Chinese scholar Zhang Yingying on June 9.

Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign, Illinois, who has a master's degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), was arrested on June 30 on a charge of kidnapping Zhang, 26, who was attending the same school.

On July 5, he was ordered held without bail by US Magistrate Judge Eric Long of the US District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Urbana.

Acting US Attorney Patrick Hansen and FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Cox of Springfield Division announced the indictment.

A preliminary court hearing scheduled for Friday was canceled, according to a statement released on Wednesday by the US attorney's office in the Central District of Illinois.

Christensen will be arraigned on July 20 in Urbana, and his lawyers have said he will plead not guilty.

The indictment charges that Christensen kidnapped Zhang and held her on June 9, and that he used a mobile phone and a car to commit and further the commission of the offense. If he is convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Zhang, who had been in the US for about a month, was conducting research at the university's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and living in university housing. She has not been found, but police believe she is no longer alive.

"As stated in the complaint affidavit, law enforcement investigating Zhang's disappearance believe Zhang is deceased," said the statement. "This determination is based on facts presented in court and court documents, and other facts uncovered during the ongoing investigation."

An affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint alleged that on June 9 Christensen was driving a black Saturn Astra, captured by security cameras, as it pulled up to Zhang at the corner of West Clark Street and North Goodwin Avenue in Urbana at about 2 pm.

Zhang can be seen entering the front passenger side of the vehicle. The vehicle then pulled away and proceeded northbound on North Goodwin Avenue.

She sent a text message on June 9 to a prospective landlord saying she was on her way to Urbana to sign a lease on an apartment but she never showed up. Her last phone activity was at 1:39 pm the same day, saying that she was running late and would not arrive until around 2:10 pm.

The last message sent to her phone was from the landlord, delivered at 2:38 pm, but there was no reply.

Later on June 9, at approximately 9:24 pm, a UIUC associate professor reported to university police that several colleagues had tried to reach Zhang by phone, and she had not responded, according to the affidavit.

Wang Zhidong, the lawyer representing Zhang's family members, said on Wednesday that they are "extremely anxious and painful" and asked for help to find Zhang as soon as possible.

"Members of Yingying's family feel comforted by the indictment by the grand jury and express gratitude for the unremitting efforts of the police and prosecutors. They also want to thank people in China, the US and everywhere else for their concern over Yingying," Wang said.

On Monday, members of Zhang's family confirmed in a statement that after checking video records, a woman spotted by several people in Salem, Illinois, which is 120 miles south of the university, was not Zhang, according to Charlie Li, president of the Chinese American Association of Central Illinois.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, UIUC Police Department and the Illinois State Police are continuing the investigation.

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