Emails: UI briefed top Chinese, U.S. government officials on missing scholar

Emails: UI briefed top Chinese, U.S. government officials on missing scholar

URBANA — For 17 days after Yingying Zhang went missing, the University of Illinois provided the Chinese Consulate in Chicago with daily updates on the investigation and efforts to welcome the visiting scholar's family.

The emails from UI Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs Robin Kaler to Deputy Consul General Peng Yu began on June 14, five days after Ms. Zhang was last seen, and continued until June 30, when Brendt Christensen was arrested on federal kidnapping charges.

The emails, obtained by The News-Gazette after an open-records request, show that high-level government officials in both the Chinese and U.S. governments were updated on the case.

"The FBI Director has been briefed on the case, and it stands as one of their national priorities," Kaler wrote on June 18, referring to then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. "The FBI is adding resources to the case from other field offices in the state and they are setting up a command post from where the case will be coordinated."

A day later, Yu wrote to Kaler that the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. has been following the case.

"H.E. Mr. Tiankai CUI, Ambassador of China to the United States of America, made a phone call from Washington D.C. this morning to the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago to express his concern for Yingying's missing and his sympathy for Yingying's family. He's been following the case and the progress of the investigation," Yu wrote. "He asked us to convey the message that he appreciates all the efforts of UIUC, UIPD and FBI in locating Yingying and hopes that breakthrough could be made in the investigation as soon as possible so as to bring back Yingying safely to the family."

After the FBI announced publicly June 27 that it had located the black Saturn Astra that Ms. Zhang was last seen entering — 13 days after the FBI later said it had obtained a search warrant for Christensen's car — Yu informed Kaler that the FBI was unable to answer a list of questions Chinese Consul General Lei Hong had asked.

"FBI Chicago field office Deputy Chief called upon Consul General Lei Hong to brief us the latest progress regarding the case prior to the press release in Champaign, yet unable to answer questions arising thereupon," Yu wrote on June 28. "We raised a list of questions to the chief which I believe have been forwarded to the FBI Springfield field office.

"Our Embassy in DC also voiced our concern to the State Department and FBI headquarters. It is hoped that all these efforts could bring a satisfactory conclusion to the case in a timely manner."

The daily updates mostly focus on how the UI and Ms. Zhang's family have been raising awareness of the case, logistics for handling the family's arrival in Champaign and other events, and updates on the rewards being offered for information about the Chinese scholar's disappearance.

The emails to the Chinese consulate included a section with updates on the investigation and the resources being devoted to the case, but don't hint at any specific actions the FBI had been taking, such as monitoring Christensen and executing a search warrant for his cellphone.

Kaler said she told the consulate as much as she knew from the University of Illinois Police Department, and that the investigation update was usually written by UIPD spokesman Pat Wade. There was an understanding that to protect the integrity of the investigation, not everything about it could be shared.

After Christensen was arrested, the daily updates stopped, though Kaler said the consulate has been in contact with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office.

Asked by The News-Gazette on multiple occasions in recent weeks for updates on the scope of the search for Ms. Zhang, whom the FBI presumes is dead, authorities have declined comment, citing the "ongoing" nature of the investigation.