Yinying Zhang sent a message to the manager of the apartment she hoped to move into: She was on her way to sign the lease, but running behind. But as the afternoon of June 9 wore on, the visiting scholar at the University of Illinois still had not shown up.
Just before 2 p.m., minutes before she was supposed to be signing a rental agreement, the Chinese student was seen trying unsuccessfully to flag down a bus near campus, court documents say. She walked to another bus stop, trying to make her appointment. Court documents said she appeared “distressed.”
Then a man drove up in a black Saturn Astra with a cracked hubcap and a sunroof. Zhang talked to him through the passenger window for about a minute. Then she opened the front passenger door and got in. It was the last time, investigators say, anyone other than the driver has seen her.
The driver is Brendt Christensen, 28, federal authorities say. He has been charged with Zhang’s kidnapping.
The investigation unearthed another detail: Christensen had read up on abducting someone using the fetish-oriented social networking website “FetLife.” Particularly, FBI agents said, he frequented a forum called “Abduction 101.” Some of its sub threads include “abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”
The website bills itself as a place for users to connect with other people interested in bondage, sadomasochism and more obscure sexual fetishes.
A search of Christensen’s phone showed he’d visited the site in April, FBI agents said.
In court documents, investigators said they presume Zhang is dead, but they have not said what leads them to that conclusion. No homicide charges have been filed. Christensen remained in jail, as of early Saturday, and it was unclear if he had hired an attorney.
On Friday, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert Jones said the news that Zhang is believed to be dead had saddened the campus community.
“They have made an arrest, and now it is time for us as a university community to come together in support of her family and friends in this difficult time of loss,” he said. “There will be time for justice and for explanations in the days and weeks ahead. But in this moment, I ask each of you to keep her family in your thoughts and to make our collective focus a celebration of Yingying Zhang’s life.”
Zhang had graduated last year with a master’s degree in environmental engineering from one of China’s elite schools, Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School, according to the Associated Press. She was expected to start work on her doctorate this fall.
Her research focused on crop photosynthesis. She used drones to study fields.
After she went missing, investigators homed in on Illinois residents who owned Saturn Astras.
Investigators interviewed Christensen twice, according to court documents. At first he said he believed he was sleeping or playing video games on the day Zhang went missing. Later, he said he was driving about the university’s campus when he saw a woman looking distressed. He said he offered the woman a ride to her destination, but she jumped out of his car and fled when he made a wrong turn.
Investigators placed him under surveillance and captured an audio recording of him talking about kidnapping Zhang, bringing her back to his apartment and holding her against her will.