FBI joins search for missing UI scholar

FBI joins search for missing UI scholar

URBANA — The FBI has joined the investigation into the disappearance of a University of Illinois visiting scholar from China who hasn't been seen since Friday afternoon.

The agency is putting up billboard messages across the state and beyond about Yingying Zhang, 26, who arrived on campus in April and was reported missing Saturday.

The FBI has labeled the case a kidnapping, but investigators haven't ruled anything out, UI Police Department spokesman Patrick Wade said Wednesday.

"We have her on video getting into a car and that's the last we see of her. That's obviously very concerning," he said.

Investigators are also looking into reports of a black vehicle whose driver invited other young women into the car, police said.

They've talked to one person who reported a similar encounter in another west Urbana neighborhood in early June, Wade said. It's unclear whether that incident is connected to Zhang's disappearance, but "it's one scenario we've explored, and we're not ruling anything out," he said.

Zhang was on her way to sign a lease at the One North apartment complex on North Lincoln Avenue in Urbana on Friday shortly before she disappeared. She texted the property manager at 1:30 p.m. that she was going to be late.

Police said she boarded a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District bus at 1:35 p.m. at Orchard Downs, but got off the bus at 1:52 p.m. at Springfield and Mathews avenues in Urbana, more than a mile short of her destination.

UI police released security-camera footage from a parking garage at Goodwin and University avenues that showed Zhang standing along Goodwin for several minutes before getting into a black Saturn Astra four-door hatchback. The car pulled up to the curb about 2 p.m., and Zhang spoke with the driver for a couple minutes before getting in. The car then drove north on Goodwin.

Police released the video Monday in hopes that the public could provide more information about the car or the driver.

As of Wednesday evening, they hadn't identified either. The license-plate number wasn't legible in the video, Wade said.

Detectives were also examining Zhang's cellphone records and working with ride-hailing companies such as Uber to see if she may have called for a ride.

"We've gotten a lot of tips over the last couple of days," and investigators from both the FBI and Illinois State Police are helping sort through the information, Wade said. At least four FBI agents are in town working on the case, as well as others offsite.

Police are still reviewing security camera footage "to see if the car pops up anywhere else on campus," he said. They've also asked businesses in the area to share whatever video footage they may have.

Wade asked any individuals who may have dash-cams in their cars to check the footage to see if they may have caught the car driving around town.

"If anyone sees anything, if anyone recognized the car or knows anything at all, we're just trying to get that word out as far as we can," he said.

Anyone with information can call 911 or the UI Police Department at 217-333-1216, or email police@illinois.edu.

The FBI has an agreement with Adams Outdoor Advertising, and the plan is to post information about Zhang on billboards from the Quad Cities and Chicago to Indianapolis and St. Louis, Wade said.

UI Police have also posted updates on the department's website, including a bulletin that people can distribute with photos of Zhang and the black car.

Zhang is from Jianyang, China, and works in the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, researching photosynthesis and crop productivity. Her appointment as a visiting scholar runs through April 2018, said campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

She has worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences for about a year, according to the website for the UI's EcoHydro Lab. She got her master's in environmental engineering from Peking University in 2016 and a bachelor's from Sun Yat-Sen University in 2013.

 

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oldtruth wrote on June 15, 2017 at 8:06 am

The article states this: "Police said she boarded a Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District bus at 1:35 p.m. at Orchard Downs, but got off the bus at 1:52 p.m. at Springfield and Mathews avenues in Urbana, more than a mile short of her destination."

As I and others have noted before, she was following the route suggested by Google Maps to get from Orchard Downs to One North. She was supposed to get off at Springfield and Mathews to transfer from the 12 (or 120) to the 22 (or 220). And she was waiting near a stop for the 22 when the car approaches her. 

https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Orchard+Downs+South+Shelter,+Cunningham+Township,+IL/One+North,+North+Lincoln+Avenue,+Urbana,+IL/@40.1062763,-88.2313361,14z/am=t/data=!3m1!4b1!4m19!4m18!1m5!1m1!1s0x880cd701e30e6129:0x485316c10ee9e962!2m2!1d-88.2112204!2d40.0908476!1m5!1m1!1s0x880cd76182aa42a1:0x401a3f21958298ad!2m2!1d-88.2218875!2d40.1282746!2m3!6e4!7e2!8j1497015000!3e3!5i28

I point this out because I don't want people concluding that she inexplicably got off the bus and thus may have been waiting for the car or known the driver. There is no evidence to suggest she was doing anything other than taking the bus to get to One North. I chastise the News-Gazette for suggesting it was inexplicable that she got off the bus. 

Considering that other women have reported a man in a black car pretended to be a plainclothes police office and attempted to get them into his car... this all suggests that she was apprehended by an ill-intentioned person. 

Now we must all hope she is unharmed and work to bring her back safely. 

rsp wrote on June 15, 2017 at 9:06 am

In their defense, it's assumed she was taking the bus all the way there. They can't report something thing they don't have the facts to.

On the other hand, she was at the bus stop for the only bus that could take her to her appointment. That was a fact that was left out of the story. She had to get off one and transfer to the other. A fact. Reporting is based on facts. all of the facts should have been included.

oldtruth wrote on June 15, 2017 at 10:06 am

Good point, rsp—We cannot know her intention; we can only make judgments based on her actions. So even though her pattern of behavior suggests she was attempting to take the bus to One North, we cannot know that for sure and thus no reporter should state it conclusively. 

Khristine wrote on June 15, 2017 at 10:06 am

Old truth: this article doesn't mention anything about a man in plain clothes pretending to be a police officer driving around in a black car approaching 'women' (plural). The article mentions "They've talked to one person who reported a similar encounter in another west Urbana neighborhood in early June..."  This situation is bad enough. Let's not add hyperbole. 

oldtruth wrote on June 15, 2017 at 10:06 am

Khristine—Good point. I am only reporting what I have heard secondhand (the impersonating a police officer piece.)

The official line is this: "Investigators are also looking into reports of a black vehicle whose driver invited other young women into the car, police said."

stingray1970 wrote on June 15, 2017 at 10:06 am
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I just hope this has a happy ending.  I've lived here for 20 years, and I know we are good people.  Please let this be a misunderstanding.

wayward wrote on June 15, 2017 at 11:06 am

It's also possible that whoever is responsible is not from this community.

fuddrules wrote on June 15, 2017 at 2:06 pm

That's likely.

How hard would it be to track down the local owner of an Astra?  I could probably count on my hands the number of locally owned Astra's.

bones1 wrote on June 15, 2017 at 3:06 pm

So, if you can count the number of locally owned Astra's on your hands then I presume you've contacted the police or FBI with that information ?

oldtruth wrote on June 15, 2017 at 4:06 pm

bones1 - The expression "count on my hands" means "there is a small number." Given how poorly the Astra sold, there are unlikely to be many of them in the area. If there are only a small number, it will be easier for the police to check in with the owners and rule them out as suspects in the case. That's the point fuddrules was making. 

rsp wrote on June 15, 2017 at 6:06 pm

It's also possible it's someone who has access to a car but isn't the actual owner. People should think about that too.

Khristine wrote on June 16, 2017 at 10:06 am

Whether this turns out to be someone from Champaign-Urbana, or not, it is sad day for us. Parents, foreign or domestic, don't send their children here to attend the university thinking that they're sending them off into potential danger. In my nearly 20 years living in C-U, I've not heard of something like this happening. It surely shakes our feeling of security in our community. 

Objective Reporter wrote on June 19, 2017 at 9:06 am

This is the first time I've ever seen a civil conversation on these comment pages.  Thanks to all.