NOW: 'It’s creepy, how he walked'

NOW: 'It’s creepy, how he walked'

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9:15 p.m.

Friday’s FBI affidavit described a suspect who visited threads on a fetish website with the titles “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”

While UI physics faculty said that didn’t match the Brendt Christensen that they knew, one resident of the apartment complex where he lived described him as “creepy.”

Alyssa Patterson said she remembers Christensen very well, noting his distinctive look and gait.

“He is really quiet. It’s creepy, how he walked, how he held himself,” she said.

Patterson and fellow Stonegate Village Apartments resident Sarah Manzella did not feel safe after they learned that the black Saturn Astra Christensen allegedly used to kidnap Ms. Zhang had been parked just outside their building, at 2403 W. Springfield Ave. in Champaign.

They were interviewed by investigators Friday night about Christensen, Patterson said.

— PAUL WOOD

5:30 p.m. Saturday

Anna Tsai, a UI assistant student affairs staff member who served as a translator for Yingying Zhang’s family, met with them Friday night when Brendt Christensen’s arrest was announced.

"It was a very difficult time,” she said.

“At this point, all I can say is that the family is very devastated and very sad, and just needs to find a way to sort through this,” she said Saturday. “Obviously at this point, they’re still looking for the police to find Yingying.”

5 p.m. Saturday

University of Illinois President Tim Killeen and Board of Trustees’ Chairman Tim Koritz issued a statement Saturday expressing a “deep sense of grief over the loss of Yingying Zhang.”

Zhang, a visiting scholar from China since April who had hoped to pursue graduate studies at the UI, had been missing since June 9 and the FBI believes she is no longer alive. The agency arrested former UI graduate student Brendt Christensen with kidnapping Friday, but Zhang has not been found.

“Her disappearance three weeks ago united the U of I community in hope of her safe return and in support of her family and friends. Now, we all share their heartache,” the statement from Killeen and Koritz said.

“Universities are places of beginning, where bright young minds come to nurture the talents that lead to lifetimes of success and happiness. Yingying’s sudden and tragic loss is felt deeply by all of us across the U of I System who believe in our power to unlock the doors to dreams.”

They thanked Chancellor Robert Jones and his team for their commitment and compassion during the search and “for making Yingying and her family part of our’s. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time."

3 p.m. Saturday

Chinese students who had spent the last two weeks working to find Yingying Zhang said today they’re “disappointed” and not sure what to do next.

Some 6,000 Chinese students are enrolled at the University of Illinois, the most of any college in the U.S., and her disappearance brought out a huge effort that extended statewide.

Suspect Brendt Christensten is scheduled for a 10 a.m. Monday hearing at Urbana’s Federal Courthouse.

But Zink Zhang, an advertising major who has been active in efforts to find Ms. Zhang, said he didn’t believe there would be any sort of demonstration there.

“I have been following this case since the beginning and I wanted to know as much as possible. For last two weeks the FBI didn’t tell us too much, not too many updates,” he said. “But the FBI are doing their work. This is their procedure, I can understand they can’t release too much.

“I had to accept something happened.”

He said he wasn’t sure if they might be an impromptu memorial today.

“If there is a memorial for tonight, I will get something like flowers or a candle,” Zhang said.

 — PAUL WOOD

2 p.m. Saturday

Students and professors who have worked with Brendt Christensen over the last four years were stunned when their colleague was arrested Friday night for the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang.

“Every email that I’ve gotten has been conveying utter shock,” UI physics Professor Lance Cooper told The News-Gazette on Saturday (watch the video here). “This is something that caught everybody off guard, particularly because we’ve all been following this story.

“Nothing indicated anything like this,” he said. “It’s just stunning.”

Christensen, who began his studies in the top-rated condensed matter physics program in 2013, received his master’s degree from the UI in May and is no longer at the university.

He had withdrawn from the Ph.D. program the previous year but wanted to finish a master’s degree before he left campus, Cooper said.

“He was making progress towards a degree. We weren’t moving him out of the program. This was his decision,” said Cooper, who supervises the graduate student program for the department.

Christensen hasn’t been seen in Loomis Lab or by anyone in the department in recent weeks, Cooper said.

For the past year, in fact, Christensen had only been taking courses outside the department and had little interaction with other physics students, Cooper said. He declined to provide more specifics or characterize his academic performance because of federal privacy rules on academic records.

The professor said he was unsure of Christensen’s plans after graduation.

Christensen had worked as a teaching assistant for several introductory physics courses for four semesters, and had research assistantships during other semesters.

Cooper didn’t know him well but met with him when he arrived on campus to discuss his course schedule and other matters.

“There were no indications of any problems with him,” he said. “I never got complaints.”

The tight-knit physics graduate students were upset by the news, particularly those who were part of Christensen’s 2013 entering class.

“None of them saw this coming,” he said.

Graduate students and others in the department are planning to contribute to some kind of memorial for Zhang, perhaps in conjunction with a fund planned by the College of Engineering, Cooper said.

“Our hearts and thoughts are with the family. We are all devastated by this,” Cooper said. “We want to try to reach out in any way we can to help ease their pain.”

— Julie Wurth

12:30 p.m. Saturday

The kidnapping arrest of a graduate student from one of the University of Illinois’ most prestigious departments sent shock waves through the campus community, particularly in the Department of Physics.

“I just don’t know how to think about how this kind of thing can ever happen,” said physics Professor Kevin Pitts. “Definitely very shocking, and of course just so sad.”

Brendt Christensten, 28, a UI physics graduate student from 2013 until this May, was arrested Friday night in connection with the disappearance of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, who is presumed dead by the FBI. She had been the subject of an intense search and media coverage here and abroad since she was last seen on June 9 getting into a black Saturn, later identified by the FBI as Christensen’s.

Pitts, who didn’t know Christensen, said the department has about 275 graduate students.

Christensen studied condensed matter physics, the department’s largest and most prestigious program, annually rated No. 1 or 2 in the country, Pitts said. It’s the legacy of the late John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Prize winner and one of the UI’s most celebrated scholars.

“That’s what we’re known for, actually,” Pitts said.

The UI’s website indicates that Christensen was a teaching assistant for several years in at least two introductory physics courses, one for non-majors and one a “bridge” course for engineering students to help prepare for college-level physics courses. As a teaching assistant he taught small-group sections of larger lecture courses, working with groups of 20 to 24 students “almost in a tutoring role,” Pitts said.

Pitts said his primary concern is for Zhang and her family, and the safety of UI students.

“We just need to use this as a reminder, first and foremost, to help students think about being safe and being unfortuantely very carful and skeptical when they run across people in settings they’re not comfortable with,” he said.

The story has received enormous attention in China, and Pitts acknowledged it could affect the UI’s student enrollment from China and opportunities for collaboration there. The UI has the most Chinese students of any U.S. university, with more than 5,600.

Pitts hopes it will be viewed as the actions of an individual, “and not in any way related to the larger institution, just because it’s so far out there and completely separate, at least in my mind, from what’s going on academically on campus.”

— Julie Wurth

Noon Saturday

Investigators from the FBI and UI Police are at the apartment complex where the man charged with kidnapping Yingying Zhang lives.

The scene at Stonegate Village at 2403 W. Springfield in Champaign is playing out less than a day after  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.

At the sprawling apartment house , the pool was crowded but none of the women there said they knew anything about him.

A FBI crime scene vehicle and other law enforcement cars were parked there.

There were reporters from the Chicago Tribune and Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of China.

— Paul Wood

10 a.m. Saturday

University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones said this morning in a mass mail to campus that a memorial planned for missing UI scholar Yingying Zhang has been postponed. "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."

10 p.m. Friday

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” Ms. 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 his LinkedIn 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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