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Man charged with kidnapping visiting scholar

By WANG LINYAN in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-07-01 11:36

FBI agents arrested a man on Friday (US time) charged with kidnapping visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang 22 days ago on June 9, according to a press release from the US Department of Justice.

Brendt Christensen, a 27-year-old from Champaign, Illinois, will remain under police custody pending his initial federal court appearance in Urbana scheduled on July 3, the DOJ statement said.

The arrest and charges were announced by FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Cox, Springfield Division, and Acting US Attorney Patrick Hansen.

The affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint alleged that on June 9 Christensen was driving a black Saturn Astra, captured by security camera video, as it stopped next to Zhang at the corner of W. Clark Street and N. Goodwin Avenue at about 2 pm. Zhang can be seen entering the front passenger side of the vehicle. The vehicle then pulled away and proceeded northbound on N. Goodwin Ave.

According to the affidavit, on June 29, while Christensen was under law enforcement surveillance, agents overheard him explaining that he had kidnapped Zhang. "Based on this and other facts uncovered during the investigation of this matter, law enforcement agents believe that Ms Zhang is no longer alive," the DOJ statement said.

On Friday, China's Consulate General in Chicago offered condolences from Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai and China's Consul General Hong Lei to Zhang's father, her aunt and her boyfriend, who arrived at the university from China mid June.

China's Consulate strongly condemned the kidnapping of Zhang and asked justice to be done.

Zhang, 26, a visiting scholar from Fujian province, had been in the US for about a month. She was conducting research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's (UIUC) department of natural resources and environmental sciences and living in university housing.

She sent a text message on June 9 to a prospective landlord saying she was on her way to Urbana to sign a lease on an apartment, but she never showed up, local media reported. Her last phone activity was at 1:30 pm the same day saying that she was running late and would not be there until around 2:10.

The last message sent to her phone was from the landlord delivered at 2:38 pm: "Hey Yingying! Just checking in to see if you're on your way."

There was no reply.

Members of Zhang's family, the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago, and University of Illinois officials have been advised of Christensen's arrest and the FBI's evidence, according to DOJ.

The University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones said the entire campus community is saddened by the news.

"Our hearts are with the family of Yingying Zhang tonight," Jones said in a statement. "This is a senseless and devastating loss of a promising young woman and a member of our community. There is nothing we can do to ease the sadness or grief for her family and friends, but we can and we will come together to support them in any way we can in these difficult days ahead."

Police said the University of Illinois community of faculty, staff and students, and residents of the Champaign-Urbana community have provided information and support to law enforcement in the continuing search for Zhang.

FBI called finding Zhang a "national priority" for the agency at a meeting on June 22, according to The Associated Press. FBI's Springfield Field Office announced in a press release on June 25 that the vehicle used in the abduction had been located.

The FBI offered a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the location of Zhang, and Crime Stoppers, a non-profit organization, cooperated with Zhang's family with an offer of $40,000 reward for any information leading to her discovery.

Xiao Jiaqiao and Hong Xiao in New York contributed to this story.

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