For Yingying Zhang's family, uncertainty is cruelest part of ordeal

For Yingying Zhang's family, uncertainty is cruelest part of ordeal

The phone calls usually come once a week, during the day, when it's the middle of the night back home in China.

When Ronggao Zhang feels the heartache of missing his daughter, Yingying, who disappeared a year ago from the University of Illinois campus. When his wife, Lifeng Ye, has the recurring dream that her daughter is still alive, somewhere.

That's when they reach out to Gui Ping Lin, one of the many Chinese-Americans in Champaign-Urbana who befriended the family during those awful days last summer.

Lin does what she can to provide comfort over the phone, assuring the parents that no one — not students, the university, the police, the Chinese community, nor Champaign-Urbana — has forgotten about their daughter.

"We're thinking of her all the time. We're with the parents, we understand what they're going through," Lin said last week.

Friends and colleagues marked the one-year anniversary of Yingying Zhang's abduction Saturday with a memorial service and plans for a permanent garden on North Goodwin Avenue, where she was last seen alive.

But they acknowledge that it's difficult to move on because she still hasn't been found.

With death, there is grief, but also closure. Here, there is grief and pain and something more cruel: uncertainty. Waiting to find out what happened to a beloved friend and daughter. Waiting to simply find her and take her home.

"We still don't know what happened. We still don't know where she is, even if we know she is gone," said Guofang Miao, a friend of Ms. Zhang.

It's part of Chinese culture that "a falling leaf should return to its roots. So we really want to find Yingying and bring her back to her hometown and her family," said Jiheng Jing, a UI student from China who helped search for Ms. Zhang last summer and hosted the service on Saturday.

* * *

Ms. Zhang, a visiting scholar from China, was on her way to sign a lease for a new apartment on June 9 when she disappeared, prompting a massive search. Police later found security camera footage that showed her getting into a black Saturn Astra at North Goodwin Avenue and Clark Street in Urbana, where she'd been waiting for a bus.

Three weeks later, police arrested former UI physics graduate student Brendt Christensen, who was later charged with kidnapping resulting in Ms. Zhang's death. Christensen remains in custody at the Livingston County Jail and faces the death penalty at his trial, which is scheduled for April 2019 — nearly two years after her disappearance.

The FBI, U.S. Attorney's office and UI Police Department have declined to comment on where the investigation stands one year later, or exactly what they think happened to Ms. Zhang. Her body has not been found.

"This is still an ongoing investigation and we are continuing to assist the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office," said Pat Wade, spokesman for the UI police.

Prosecutors and Christensen's defense attorneys are near the beginning of a long series of deadlines set by U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce in February. Prosecutors had a deadline in May to provide certain evidence to defense attorneys, and the defense has until July 13 to file motions in response.

Then there are deadlines for defense lawyers to give notice if they plan to seek an insanity defense, to file motions about changing the trial venue, and to file motions about jury selection.

"It's obviously a very slow, frustrating process," said Steve Beckett, the family's lawyer in Urbana.

Xiaolin Hao, Ms. Zhang's boyfriend, is back at Beijing University, pursuing his doctoral research in agriculture but keeping close tabs on the case. He emailed Beckett last week.

"They just want to know what's going on in the case, but the process of defense and prosecution is very deliberate, so it takes time," Beckett said.

* * *

Ms. Zhang had come to the UI just weeks before her abduction, arriving in April 2017 as a visiting scholar in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Miao worked daily in the lab and field with Ms. Zhang. Miao took her to Nebraska in May 2017 for their research project, using technology to collect data on crop yields and improve land management.

They liked to go out for Indian food or sample other restaurants, and they visited Allerton Park in Monticello together. A photo of Ms. Zhang from that trip was used for the missing-person flyers posted throughout Champaign-Urbana.

Ms. Zhang had a "passion for life in the United States and working hard," Miao said. "Everything was new and exciting."

She was particularly intrigued by the spacious, flat central Illinois landscape, a far cry from densely populated Beijing or the hilly terrain of her hometown in Fu Jian province in southeastern China.

Ms. Zhang came to work in the lab as usual on the morning of June 9 but asked for time off during lunch to sign a lease for a new apartment in north Urbana, Miao said.

By 3 p.m., Miao was surprised Ms. Zhang hadn't returned but figured she may have needed more time to tour the apartment or look around the neighborhood.

At dinnertime, she still wasn't back. Miao and another colleague who had talked with Ms. Zhang about going to dinner together tried calling her. No answer.

Later, they went to Ms. Zhang's apartment, but she wasn't home. Something "didn't feel right," Miao said. They went to the police department at 8 p.m. to report her missing.

They didn't have any contact information for Ms. Zhang's family, so Miao called her own friends in China, who reached Ms. Zhang's former colleagues at Beijing University. They in turn contacted Hao, her boyfriend, who notified the Zhang family.

* * *

The case, and its sensational details, received widespread attention almost immediately, both here and in China. The Chinese Students and Scholars Association took the lead in raising awareness on social media, contacting news outlets and organizing volunteers for searches. Members of the native Chinese community in Champaign-Urbana and Chicago also supported Ronggao Zhang and other family members once they arrived.

UI officials helped the students and arranged for Ms. Zhang's father, aunt and Hao to travel here from China, providing paperwork for the State Department to approve emergency visas and securing airline tickets. Her mother and younger brother came later, in August.

Anna Tsai, a staff member in the UI Office of Student Affairs, was one of several people who helped out with translating as family members met with UI officials, police or lawyers representing the family.

Part of it was cultural translation — explaining the U.S. legal system to the family and helping authorities understand "how and why the Chinese would think this way," Tsai said.

She wrestled with how to break bad news to the parents, to help them "prepare for the worst," without dashing hope. She wanted to be truthful, so they understood everything, but not callous.

"You want to be as helpful as you can and support them in every way you can, and try to be strong and not emotional," which was difficult, she said.

"Every time you walk in, you really don't know what to expect," she said. "You just wonder, 'So what is new now?' How do you tell the parents that the reality is you probably won't expect her to come back?

"Unfortunately, it came out as the worst-case scenario," Tsai said.

* * *

The most difficult day, all agree, was June 30, when police arrested Christensen and told the family that they believed Ms. Zhang had been killed.

"That was the darkest time for the family," Miao said.

At the time, they wrestled with whether to provide details to Ms. Zhang's mother, Lifeng Ye, who was still in China. She had been struggling with her daughter's disappearance and her health. They decided to wait, said Miao, who went to the police department with the family that day.

A year later, Miao still is overcome recalling the events.

"We always know what happened, but ..." she said, pausing to wipe away tears.

Until that day, she said, Ms. Zhang's friends and family tried to maintain hope — hope that she was being held prisoner somewhere, perhaps even under torture, but could be found and rescued.

"Yingying was tough. As long as she was alive, we could always find a way to help.

"Nobody expected this," she said.

Lifeng Ye still has trouble accepting that her daughter is gone, friends said.

"I think she still clings on this hope that she's still out there somewhere," Tsai said. "As a mother, you understand why she thinks that way. In every way she can, she wanted to have that hope."

* * *

Gui Ping Lin forged a unique bond with Ms. Zhang's parents.

Lin owns the Asian Supermarket on North Prospect Avenue and met the family last June after hearing about the case when students dropped off flyers at her store. She is from the same province in China, so she felt she could provide food the family was accustomed to. She took groceries or meals to them almost every day while they stayed in Orchard Downs and later another apartment in Urbana.

Lin said she wanted to do what she could to provide comfort. They were so far away from home, and she thought it would help to know that someone in the United States cared.

She also traveled with them a couple of times to Chicago, where a large Chinese-American community from Fu Jiang province provided support for the family.

Now, when she gets a call from Ronggao Zhang — who used to sit on his daughter's apartment stoop at Orchard Downs in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep — she tries to simply listen and keep him company, asking about his job. He's been unable to return to work as a truck driver but now works at an information desk for another company in China. Her sense is that he has accepted his daughter's death.

But Lin's conversations with Lifeng Ye are different. Lin merely tries to comfort her and reassure her that police are still looking for her daughter.

In early April, on a day when it's customary for Chinese people to visit their ancestors' graves, Lin sent them a picture of the impromptu memorial for Ms. Zhang at Goodwin and Clark, where an anonymous donor had again placed fresh flowers. She wanted them to know "that people do remember."

Lin called the Zhangs again Tuesday to tell them she still has customers walk in the store, both Asian and American, who ask how the family is holding up.

"A lot of people are thinking of Yingying," she said through a translator.

The family returned to China in November after defense attorneys asked for the trial to be delayed. They wanted to reserve the limited funds they have to help find their daughter and return for the trial, Tsai said.

When they come back, they want to visit Yingying's old apartment as well as the memorial, the last place where their daughter was seen alive, Lin said.

"It gives them some sense of comfort. Every time they think of her, they want to visit where she was before," she said.

The family is not marking the one-year anniversary in China. Lifeng Ye says there is no point, because she believes her daughter is still alive, Lin said.

Whenever the Zhangs are asked for comment, Lin said, they have one message: Find our daughter, as soon as possible.

* * *

The case has taken an obvious toll on all involved.

Miao, who helped arrange a video for Saturday's memorial, said it may have been a comfort to Ms. Zhang's family and friends, but "for Yingying herself, whatever we did, it's nothing."

That's why they want to build a permanent garden as a memorial, "so everybody can know there is a girl like Yingying."

Still, the case hasn't changed her view of the UI, or the United States.

"It's all just because of this bad person. This is just one specific individual. It could happen anywhere, or anytime," she said.

The case frightened Chinese students last summer, particularly since it happened in the afternoon, Jing said. He thinks that fear has subsided, though women are still probably more careful about safety or interacting with strangers, he said. Jing locks his door, something he never used to do, but added, "There are bad people in all countries."

Lin came to the United States in 1991 with her husband, Thomas Zheng, then an exchange scholar at the UI in chemistry who now works in private industry. They stayed in Champaign because they felt it was "a very good community to raise a family," she said.

They have no plans to leave, but the Zhang case made them feel "this wasn't always a safe community. It just felt different now," she said. "It just makes you re-evaluate everything."

A year of heartache

JUNE 9, 2017

Two months after arriving at the UI, Yingying Zhang is last seen entering a black Saturn Astra at the corner of Clark Street and North Goodwin Avenue in Urbana.

JUNE 30, 2017

The FBI arrests Brendt Christensen, accusing the former UI grad student of kidnapping Ms. Zhang, a day after a walk and concert to raise awareness for her case.

OCT. 3, 2017

A grand jury returns a superseding indictment against Christensen, accusing him of lying to federal agents and the kidnapping of Ms. Zhang resulting in her death.

NOV. 13, 2017

After defense attorneys ask for the trial to be delayed and hope fades for a quick resolution, Ms. Zhang's family returns home to China due to her mother's health.

JAN. 19, 2018

Prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty against Christensen, even though Ms. Zhang's body hasn't been found. He's represented by the federal public defender's office.

FEB. 12, 2018

U.S. District Court Judge Colin Bruce delays the trial, scheduled to begin Feb. 27, to April 2019. Christensen remains in custody at the Livingston County Jail in Pontiac.