Flowers, anger, regret as accused kidnapper indicted

Flowers, anger, regret as accused kidnapper indicted

URBANA — On the day that Yingying Zhang's alleged kidnapper was formally indicted by a federal grand jury, community members mourned the missing UI scholar in their own ways.

A reader called The News-Gazette to say she'd seen on Wednesday's front page the photograph of the single, weathered floral bouquet left at the spot on campus where Ms. Zhang was last seen and was moved to order a fresh arrangement.

By late afternoon, a pink bouquet had been laid near the corner of West Clark Street and North Goodwin Avenue, with a card that read: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Family and Friends of Yingying Zhang during their trying time."

At Champaign's Stonegate Village Apartments — where Christensen lived and allegedly "held (Ms. Zhang) for his own benefit and purpose," in the words of the one-paragraph indictment delivered Wednesday — Pondja Djamba expressed regret and anger.

A Parkland College student who has lived in the complex for about a year, Djamba said he doesn't know his neighbors well. But had any of them heard or seen the acts authorities allege Christensen committed against the visiting Chinese scholar, he has enough faith in humanity to believe they'd have sprung into action.

"How could this happen at our complex?" Djamba asked. "We could have done something."

The news that arrived just before 4 p.m. Wednesday wasn't what many in the community had been hoping for. Thirty-four days after she was last seen, Ms. Zhang still has not been found, and the U.S. attorney's office repeated what the FBI said the day Christensen was arrested: Ms. Zhang is presumed dead.

"This determination is based on facts presented in court and court documents, and other facts uncovered during the ongoing investigation," read a statement from Patrick Hansen, acting U.S. Attorney for the Central District.

Asked about the scope of the search for Ms. Zhang and her photograph being removed from the Most Wanted Kidnappings & Missing Persons page on the FBI website, Springfield-based bureau spokesman Brad Ware declined comment. From this point forward, he said, the U.S. Attorney's Office will be the only agency commenting about the case.

Christensen, 28, remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service at the Macon County Jail. He was denied bail last week in his second appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric Long and is due back in Long's courtroom at 3 p.m. July 20 for arraignment.

A preliminary hearing scheduled for Friday at the federal courthouse in Urbana was vacated.

Few new details were provided in the indictment issued Wednesday, with much of the information revealed about the investigation stemming from the June 30 affidavit of FBI Special Agent Anthony Manganaro.

The indictment alleges that Christensen "willfully and unlawfully seized, confined, inveigled, decoyed, kidnapped, abducted, and carried away" Ms. Zhang "and otherwise held her for his own benefit and purpose, and used and caused to be used a means, facility and instrumentality of interstate commerce, namely, a Motorola cellular telephone and a Saturn Astra motor vehicle, in committing and in furtherance of the commission of the offense."

If Christensen is convicted of kidnapping, he could face up to life in prison.

The government's case appeared to grow stronger last week, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres revealed in court new details about the investigation during Christensen's detention hearing.

Among them:

— While under surveillance during a Thursday vigil for Ms. Zhang outside Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Christensen allegedly explained the "characteristics of an ideal victim."

— He was allegedly captured on a recording picking out other potential victims at that same public vigil, held the night before his arrest.

— Authorities taped Christensen on another occasion describing how he kidnapped Ms. Zhang and carried her back to his apartment, how she "fought and resisted against him" and how he restrained her.

— He threatened another person involved in the case to whom he provided incriminating information. Authorities did not say who that person was.

Long said the evidence against Christensen "seemed strong," adding: "That certainly indicates to me a danger."

Freres is prosecuting the case with fellow assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller. Both are UI alumni.

The search for Ms. Zhang remains an ongoing investigation conducted by the FBI, University of Illinois Police and the Illinois State Police, authorities said Wednesday.

UI discussing how to better prepare visitors

University of Illinois officials have been meeting to discuss bolstering international student education on American culture and safety before they get to campus, UI Police Lt. Joan Fiesta said.

Fiesta made the announcement during Wednesday's monthly gathering of the Champaign-Urbana Community Coalition. She said the meetings so far have taken the temperature of the situation and that no specific education plans have been formulated yet.

The meetings come after visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang was allegedly kidnapped by former UI grad student Brendt Christensen on June 9. Ms. Zhang is presumed dead, according to the FBI.

Since then, some Chinese students have told The News-Gazette that they don't think the university prepares them enough for their trip overseas. The school has the largest Chinese enrollment among U.S. higher-education institutions, with more than 5,600 students.

NATALIE WICKMAN

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Fagan812 wrote on July 13, 2017 at 9:07 am

Can you please update the story to include the proper name of the US attorney.  It is Bryan Freres, not Bryant.