Missing UI scholar's family appeals to Trump for help finding her

Missing UI scholar's family appeals to Trump for help finding her

The parents of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang have appealed to President Donald Trump for help finding their daughter, who went missing June 9 and is presumed dead by the FBI.

The family sent a letter last week to the president, asking him to "direct all federal resources to try to find Yingying," attorney Zhidong Wang of Chicago said Monday.

Ms. Zheng's father, Ronggao Zhang, and boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, planned to read the letter in Chinese and English at a press conference this afternoon at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign, Wang said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Zhang's mother, Lifeng Ye, and younger brother, Xinyang Zhang, 23, flew to Champaign from China on Saturday, joining her father and boyfriend, who have been here since June 17.

At the press conference, Zhang and Ye are scheduled to answer questions about their daughter's case for the first time since the June 30 arrest of former University of Illinois graduate student Brendt Christensen, who was later charged with her kidnapping. Ms. Zhang, 26, has not been found. She had arrived at the UI in April for a one-year appointment with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Asked if authorities have shared further information on her whereabouts, Wang said, "I'm not at liberty to disclose any of that. The only thing I can say is that they have not found Yingying."

A hearing in Christensen's case is scheduled for Monday, and a tentative trial date has been set for Sept. 12.

Wang expects the family will stay through at least Sept. 12, but said it's likely the trial date will likely be pushed back.

Ronggao Zhang and Hou had said last month that they would stay in Champaign-Urbana until Ms. Zhang is found.

Asked if that is still the case, Wang said, "They don't have any definite plan."

The family has rented a property in Urbana, he said.

"It's still a very frustrating time for all of them," he said. "I know a lot of people are helping them with food, transportation or other necessities."

The family sent both an electronic copy of the letter and a hard copy via mail to President Trump, Wang said.

"We hope he received it. We have not received any response," Wang said.

The press conference will also address how the family will use more than $137,000 raised through a GoFundMe campaign and encourage the public to continue efforts to find Ms. Zhang and support her family, officials said. A total of 3,248 people had contributed to the fund as of Monday; the goal is $500,000.

The campaign was created to help the family with expenses during the search, and as the court case winds its way through the legal system "her family needs support and kindness more than ever," the GoFundMe site says.

"It was Yingying's will to complete her education and return to China to become a university professor, support her family. At this time, we are asking your support to fulfill Yingying's wish to help her family. Thank you for helping ensure that Yingying's dream comes true," the site says.

Part of the money has gone toward a reward for information about Ms. Zhang's whereabouts. The Champaign County Crime Stoppers' reward was raised from $40,000 to $50,000 last month, the largest total in the organization's 31-year history.

Christensen, 28, is accused of luring Ms. Zhang into his car as she was waiting for a bus June 9 in Urbana and then holding her hostage in his Champaign apartment. Security cameras recorded her getting into the car. Christensen later attended the June 29 public rally and walk for Ms. Zhang.

A federal grand jury indicted Christensen on kidnapping charges on July 12. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.

With the immense publicity given the case, here and abroad, some international students returning to campus this month are worried about safety. The UI expanded safety orientation programs and self-defense workshops for international students in response.

Xiaoyu Liu, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, believes those programs should be mandatory, as "rules and safety situations could be totally different around the world."

Liu never considered not coming back to the UI but said the case did raise security concerns.

"I was really anxious during May and June during the search for Yingying. I tried to help but I was even afraid of taking a bus to the campus by myself," Liu said.