Chinese UI students helping with search for missing countrywoman

Chinese UI students helping with search for missing countrywoman

CHAMPAIGN — On Friday afternoon, Zink Zhang watched a young Chinese woman, presumably a University of Illinois student, walking alone near the intersection of Green and Neil streets.

One week after Chinese visiting scholar Ying-ying Zhang went missing, he was none too pleased.

"I just thought that was really dangerous," he said. "There are some girls who I don't think are taking this as serious as they should. Even in the daylight, it's dangerous because that's when this happened."

The incident he was referring to happened June 9, the day Yingying Zhang was last heard from. New to town, she was on her way to the One North apartment complex on North Lincoln Avenue in Urbana to sign a lease. She texted the apartment manager at 1:30 p.m. that day that she was going to be late.

Surveillance footage from campus showed her getting into a black Saturn Astra at 2 p.m. near the intersection of Goodwin Avenue and Clark Street. She hasn't been seen since.

"We really want people to understand it's not safe to be alone," said Zink Zhang, a UI advertising student from China.

Zink Zhang, who is no relation to the missing scholar, is one of hundreds of volunteers who have been working around the clock for the past week sharing information on various platforms about her disappearance.

"Chinese students are paying attention to this and talking about it," he said. "All international students are paying attention to it. This is beyond our imagination that something like this happened."

Zink Zhang said he and about 500 other Chinese students have been communicating in a forum on Chinese social media site WeChat, sharing information. They've also set up a Facebook page and have taken to the community to post fliers that include a photo of Yingying Zhang and the car she was seen getting into.

"We've posted fliers all around town and a 15-mile radius around town," Zink Zhang said. "I was putting up fliers (Thursday) in Homer."

The volunteers' fliers are in addition to those produced and posted by UI police and the FBI, which is handling the investigation. UI Police spokesman Patrick Wade said the decision to post fliers is made when it's believed that information from the public could prove beneficial to the investigation.

That's just one vehicle being used. UIPD has also been active on social media, passing along information about the case and asking the public to be vigilant. That has led to an increase in calls and tips to the department, Wade said.

"I haven't counted, but on this case, we've received literally hundreds of tips. Each one is going to our detectives, and they're sorting through those," Wade said. "We've gotten so many that we have to prioritize which one is going to be more likely to be valuable information. We follow up on those first, but we do look at everything, and we're continuing to follow up on those."

On Thursday evening, the UI International Student and Scholar Services Department hosted a forum for international students along with members of the UIPD to discuss the case and answer any questions foreign-born students might have about the case and their own safety. More than 100 attended.

Bob Whattoff, a campus minister to international students, wasn't there. But in the days following Ying-ying Zhang's disappearance, he had heard from a handful of international students.

"I haven't sensed a particular increased fear among international students, but I imagine young women and Asians might have their guard up more, and they might not want to use ride-sharing services any more," Whatthoff said. "Like anybody else in the community, they're concerned."

Zink Zhang said this case has received media attention in China, with some outlets there contacting UI students to get their thoughts. He said a Chinese television station sent a crew to the UI campus earlier in the week to interview students.

Zink Zhang said he doesn't know the missing scholar personally, but some of those volunteering to spread information do, and they relayed that she is cautious.

"She's careful; she wears her backpack on the front to avoid people stealing from her," Zink Zhang said. "Her boyfriend said she's thoughtful, and she doesn't easily trust people."

Share info with Crime Stoppers

In addition to the substantial publicity about missing UI scholar Yingying Zhang, her disappearance has also been designated as Champaign County Crime Stoppers' case of the week for next week.

Anyone with information about the scholar, last seen getting into a black Saturn Astra four-door hatchback at the corner of West Clark and North Goodwin about 2 p.m. June 9, is asked to call UI police Officer Tara Hurless at 217-333-1216.

If tipsters want to remain anonymous, they can contact Crime Stoppers at 217-373-TIPS, or through a free smartphone app called "P3 Tips." Tips are electronically stripped of any identifying information and processed by a third-party answering service, not law enforcement. Cash rewards of up to $1,000 are paid for information leading to an arrest.