UI's surveillance cameras key to missing scholar's case

UI's surveillance cameras key to missing scholar's case

URBANA — If it wasn't for one of the 1,652 surveillance cameras on the University of Illinois campus, Yingying Zhang's alleged kidnapper might still be at large instead of spending his second week in custody at the Macon County Jail.

The visiting Chinese scholar's last-known movements were captured June 9 by an Axis camera mounted on the B-4 parking deck at the intersection of Clark Street and Goodwin Avenue. That's where a black Saturn Astra four-door hatchback, allegedly driven by Brendt Christensen, rolled up to Zhang in broad daylight, around 2 p.m.

She got inside and hasn't been seen since. The FBI said she is presumed dead, though Springfield-based spokesman Brad Ware told The News-Gazette: "The case is ongoing and will continue to be ongoing until we locate Ms. Zhang."

Christensen, a former physics graduate student at the UI, was arrested June 30 and is being held in federal custody without bail until his trial. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Friday in Urbana, unless a grand jury returns an indictment beforehand.

Surveillance footage of the incident was publicly available quickly after Zhang went missing.

Although the car's license plate wasn't legible, its cracked hubcap could be seen. That helped investigators pinpoint Christensen's car out of the 18 four-door Saturn Astras registered in Champaign County, according to the affidavit from FBI special agent Anthony Manganaro.

200 cameras added a year

UI police Lt. Joan Fiesta said the camera was installed, for around $6,000, while the parking deck was being renovated in 2014.

"It was installed in order to provide extra security footage for vehicles entering the parking lot, with the surrounding area — such as the corner of Goodwin and Clark — being part of that footage," Fiesta said in an email.

There is no one person at the UI tasked with monitoring campus surveillance footage at all times, Fiesta said, except during large-scale events like Illini games, the marathon or holidays.

The footage is reviewed by police telecommunicators and officers when a crime occurs. It is university policy to store all footage for 30 days.

"There are locations on campus that are not covered," Fiesta said, "but we are adding approximately 200 cameras per year to increase coverage."

The university's Security Camera Policy prohibits audio recordings; installing cameras in private areas or places with window access to private areas; and monitoring individuals in footage "based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or other protected classification."

The policy defines private areas as "residence hall rooms, bathrooms, shower areas, locker and changing rooms, areas where a reasonable person might change clothes, and private offices." Medical, physical and mental therapy and treatment rooms are also considered private.

"Where security cameras are permitted in private areas, they will to the maximum extent possible be used narrowly to protect money, real or personal property, documents, supplies, equipment or pharmaceuticals from theft, destruction or tampering," according to the policy.

The Gregory Hayes case

Surveillance footage as a path to justice isn't a given for every local crime victim. Last August, Jeffery Wayne Stacy was struck by a vehicle while walking home from the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival. It happened outside a camera's watchful eye, at the corner of University and Broadway.

Mr. Stacy later died from his injuries, and the driver responsible has still not been found.

Fiesta said there are many cases where there would be no physical evidence or suspects if it weren't for surveillance footage.

"In reviewing data from 2013, 2014 and 2015," Fiesta said, "we found that, in 60 percent of the cases that had video footage, we were able to either a) support the facts of the case given to us by witnesses; or b) solve the case due to the footage."

Fiesta noted a high-profile 2013 case that was solved thanks to surveillance. Gregory Hayes was sentenced to 60 years for aggravated criminal sexual assault of a UI student that was caught on camera.

"Hayes was identified within an hour of the report, due to the image, and arrested the same day," she said.

'An increase in eyes'

While waiting for a bus near the site of Ms. Zhang's kidnapping, UI student Rachel Daly said the school's surveillance doesn't feel invasive.

"I would feel freaked out if they didn't have surveillance cameras," Daly said. "It's more beneficial than non-beneficial."

Student Shaan Keswani said Ms. Zhang's case is reason enough for the university to beef up its camera presence and video quality.

"If you can't capture a license plate," Keswani said about the footage of Christensen's car, "then what's the point?"

Differing from some of his fellow students, Kyle Hand said the cameras don't make him feel safer. But he doesn't find them threatening, either.

"It's an increase in eyes, but if a camera can see you, then a person probably can," Hand said.

Although anything can be taken advantage of, student Nujia Cui said she still thinks the cameras are "good and necessary in general."

"I feel good to have cameras," Cui said. "Authority only has access to it and I don't think they'll leak it."