Perhaps because of my memories of being a new graduate student in the US, my attention was drawn to the strange and sad case of a Chinese student Yingying Zhang, who came to the US for graduate studies in April and disappeared soon after on June 9. What is puzzling is that footage from street security cameras show her waiting at a bus stop and then getting into a car that stopped for her. The car’s owner has since been identified as being until recently a promising physics graduate student and he has been taken into custody.
The suspect, Brendt Christensen, of Champaign, was arrested in connection to her disappearance late Friday. [June 30]
He appeared in federal court for the first time Wednesday [July 5] and was ordered detained during the trial, prosecutors said.
During the hearing, prosecutors said Christensen had described Zhang as the “ideal victim” and described how she had resisted when she was taken. Officials did not say who he made those comments to.
Christensen, prosecutors said, had also attended a vigil held for Zhang a day before he was taken into custody.
Christensen seems to inhabit a fetish-filled online world.
After narrowing their investigation to Christensen, a search of the 27-year-old’s phone showed he had visited a forum on April 19 called “Abduction 101,” according to an FBI affidavit filed after his arrest.
Christensen found that forum on a social network called FetLife, which caters to people interested bondage and discipline, dominance, and submission fetishes. In the “Abduction 101” forum, Christensen allegedly visited sub-threads called “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping” on his phone.
Since news broke of her disappearance, there have been reported sightings of Zhang but nothing concrete.
What is curious is that while the suspect has been saying some things that suggest he is the guilty party, he has not revealed what Zhang’s ultimate fate was or where she or her body is. Christensen seems to have talked freely to someone about what he had done but not to investigators.
Christensen was captured on security video, according to court documents, approaching her in his black Saturn. After police tracked the owners of Saturns in the county — and concluded that Christensen’s car had been in the videos because of its sunroof and cracked front hubcap — Christensen was interviewed by police.
After initially telling police that he was at home playing video games or sleeping that afternoon, he later told police that he had indeed picked up “an Asian female” who was standing at a corner, looking distressed, according to a federal affidavit. She had gotten out of his car after he made a wrong turn and, according to Christensen, she panicked. Police later searched the car and concluded that Christensen had made an effort to clean parts of it “to a more diligent extent” than the rest of it.
That, officials said, “may be indicative of an attempt to conceal or destroy evidence.”
Investigators later obtained audiotapes made while Christensen was under surveillance. In the tapes, he allegedly discussed how he had kidnapped Zhang and brought her back to his apartment. Federal prosecutors also said Christensen was caught on tape describing how Zhang resisted and fought back against Christensen during the abduction, and threatening someone close to the case to whom he’d made incriminating statements.
It does not look promising for Zhang, who may have been the unfortunate choice to fulfill a very disturbed person’s fantasy.