UPDATED: Former grad student arrested in UI scholar's disappearance; FBI presumes her dead

UPDATED: Former grad student arrested in UI scholar's disappearance; FBI presumes her dead

Saturday morning update: Campus memorial postponed

The FBI believes that the visiting Chinese scholar who went missing 22 days ago in Campustown is dead and that the man responsible for her disappearance is a University of Illinois physics grad student who authorities say visited threads on a fetish website titled “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”

On Friday night, a day after hundreds marched in Urbana in support of Yingying Zhang, the FBI announced the arrest of Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign, on a federal criminal complaint that charges him with Zhang’s June 9 kidnapping.

Authorities said they think Zhang is no longer alive based on audio FBI agents heard of Christensen, under surveillance Thursday, describing how he kidnapped her and what the bureau described only as “other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter.”

FBI spokesman Brad Ware said he couldn’t comment on where Zhang might be, saying: “It’s still an ongoing investigation.”

Christensen will remain in custody pending his initial appearance in federal court in Urbana, scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.

Members of Zhang’s family — including her father, who traveled from China to Champaign to join in the search for his daughter — were informed of Christensen’s arrest, the FBI said. The Chinese consulate and officials with the UI were also briefed before the FBI announced Christensen’s arrest shortly after 8:30 p.m. Friday.

In a statement, UI Chancellor Robert Jones said: “The entire campus community is saddened by this news and our hearts are with the family of Yingying Zhang tonight. This is a senseless and devastating loss of a promising young woman and a member of our community. There is nothing we can do to ease the sadness or grief for her family and friends, but we can and we will come together to support them in any way we can in these difficult days ahead.”

Jones said a campuswide memorial ceremony will be held Saturday evening. Details have yet to be announced.

The UI Counseling Center has made resources available to members of the campus community, UI police said.

"Our thoughts and hearts are with the family, friends and loved ones of Yingying Zhang," the police department posted Friday on its website about the search.

While not offering any hints publicly, authorities turned their attention to Christensen three days after Ms. Zhang was last seen — captured on surveillance video entering a black Saturn Astra four-door hatchback around 2 p.m. at the intersection of Clark Street and Goodwin Avenue in Urbana.

Though the vehicle’s license plate wasn’t legible, UI police and other authorities identified 18 four-door Saturn Astras registered in Champaign County, according to an affidavit given by FBI special agent Anthony Manganaro.

On June 12, authorities located Christensen’s Astra in the 2500 block of West Springfield Avenue. When questioned at the time, Christensen told authorities he could not recall where he was at the time Zhang was last seen, according to the affidavit.

But based on further review of surveillance footage, including a cracked front-passenger hubcap, authorities determined Christensen’s Astra to be the same one that picked up Zhang. They obtained a search warrant for it on June 14.

The next day, FBI agents and UI police officers executed the warrant for the vehicle and interviewed Christensen at the bureau’s Champaign office.

It was during that interview, according to the affidavit, that Christensen admitted to picking up an Asian woman. But he said he dropped her off in a residential area a few blocks away.

While the interview was going on, agents spoke with another occupant of Christensen’s residence. That person, who wasn’t identified in the affidavit, consented to a search and seizure of items from the residence, at which point Christensen’s cellphone was collected.

Agents obtained a federal search warrant for the phone and found visits in April to the website FetLife, where he allegedly visited a forum titled “Abduction 101,” which dealt with planning kidnappings and abductions.

FBI agents also determined that the passenger door of Christensen’s Astra appeared to have been cleaned “to a more diligent extent than the other vehicle doors ...  indicative of an attempt to conceal or destroy evidence.”

Beginning June 16, the FBI began continuously monitoring Christensen, which resulted in Thursday’s confession — he unknowingly was caught “explaining how he kidnapped” Zhang, according to the affidavit.

The statement from Jones was the only official public comment from the UI on Friday night.

It made no specific mention of Christensen, who on his LinkedIn page described himself as a Ph.D. candidate studying experimental condensed matter physics at the UI.

He arrived at the UI in August 2013, following four years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. According to his self-written bio, that stretch included spending the 2012-13 school year serving as a research assistant in Switzerland, where he analyzed data created at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider.

His responsibilities at Illinois as a graduate teaching assistant beginning in 2013 included supervising and guiding “discussion sections of about 20 students at a time while they worked through physics problems,” overseeing and grading quizzes and proctoring exams, he wrote on his LinkedIn page.

In the “awards” section of that page, Christensen touted the fact that he was “ranked excellent teaching assistant every single semester I taught — fall 2013, spring 2014, fall 2015.”

Since January 2014, according to his bio, he has served as a Ph.D. student researcher.

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