What Happened to Yingying Zhang?

April 02, 2022

On the 9th of June 2017 a 26 year old Chinese scholar studying at the University of Illinois went missing.

 

Yingying Zhang is from a small city in South east China called Nanping (a prefectural city in the Fujian province). She left her quaint, mountain top home town after receiving a scholarship to study at the Chinese Academy of sciences, 600 miles away in Beijing.

Yingying planned to study for one year in the United States for research purposes and touched down on American soil in April of 2017- just two months before she vanished.

On the day she went missing, the 26 year old had an appointment with a landlord at an apartment complex off campus. Yingying was running late and was rushing to catch the series of buses she needed to take in order to get there.  At 1:35pm, she got on a Teal line bus at the Orchard Downs South shelter.

Aware that she would be late for the meeting, she sent a text message to the landlord at exactly 1.39pm.  This is an image of the messages between the two.

 

So as we can see in the image, Yingying had put in an application with “One north”. A quick search tells us that “one north” is a rental agency providing apartments to students slightly off campus.

Yingying informs the representative, Trez, that she’ll be there around 2.10pm. Unfortunately she ran into an issue catching the connecting bus and ended up walking several blocks to another bus stop while attempting to transfer. The 26 year old wasn’t familiar with the area yet, the bus schedules were confusing and she wasn’t sure where to board the next one. When she finally caught sight of the connecting bus it was already leaving and her attempts to wave it down failed. 

On foot, she trudged several streets away to another bus shelter just outside the HQ of the university’s TV and radio station. CCTV cameras around the building show that she approached the location at around 2:00pm. If it wasn’t for the surveillance footage we may never have known what happened next.

Let’s take a look: (keep in mind the footage has been sped up)

In broad daylight a black vehicle drives by as Zhang waits for the next bus. Three minutes later it circles back around and pulls up next to her. We see her talking to the driver before eventually jumping into the passenger seat and the car takes off. 

Time passed and Yingying neglected to show up to sign the contract for a new lease at the apartment complex. The representative of One North contacted her one last time at 2:38pm but Zhang did not reply. By 9:24pm her friends had grown understandably concerned and Zhang was eventually reported missing to the police.

An award for information leading to the whereabouts of the missing young woman eventually reached $50,000, however she is still missing.

With the little information investigators had to go on, they managed to track down their first suspect in the case, a 26 year old man named Brendt Allen Christensen, who they interviewed just a couple of days later on June 12th.

 

Christensen graduated from the University of Illinois with a physics degree in the spring of 2017- around a month after Yingying arrived on campus. He lived locally and owned a black Saturn Astra- the same make and model as the vehicle shown on the surveillance footage on the day that Yingying went missing. Not only was the vehicle the same type and color, but it also displayed the same imperfection that investigators had noted when analyzing the tape- a damaged hood cap.

The vehicle was searched on June 15th.

Although police didn’t find any physical evidence in the car, they did discovered a severe lack thereof in the form of a very meticulously cleaned passenger side door. Compared to the rest of the interior, it appeared to have been scrubbed down vigorously, which lead police to believe that a clean-up had been performed in an attempt to destroy evidence.

Christensen was a married man and with the compliance of his wife, police gained access to search the home the couple shared. They took computers and phones from the residence and sent them off for analysis.

Disturbingly, a search of Christensen’s phone turned up frequent visits to a forum called “Abduction 101” on a website called “Fetlife”. Fetlife is social media platform for people into BDSM and a large spectrum of kinks owned by Bitlove.inc. To access the website a user must sign up, providing an email address and phone number for verification. The Fetlife homepage is indexed by search engines however the forums are not. The Abduction 101 forum is a fantasy and role-playing board intended to be used as a space of expression for consenting adults- Christensen, however,  was lurking on the website,  taking notes in preparation for a real life crime he was planning to commit. 

In an early interview Christensen informed investigators that on the day of Yingying's disappearance he was likely sleeping at his home or playing video games. He later admitted to “giving an Asian female” a ride in his car. He claimed that he pulled over and let her out after he mistakenly drove off route and she became anxious and demanded to exit the car.

As we’ve seen in other cases of guilty suspects this kind of story-changing is very common. The fact that Christensen would not have remembered nor mentioned picking up a young woman fitting Yingying's description is questionable.

Brendt Christensen was arrested for kidnapping Yingying Zhang on the 30th of June 2017 and was later denied bail.

Christensen has been charged with two counts of giving false statements to officials and kidnapping resulting in a murder. As of early this year prosecutors are deliberating on whether or not to seek the death penalty and the trial is set to start.  

According to this article in the Chicago Tribune the federal jury condemned Christensen in a 4 page indictment stating that his crime was carefully premeditated over an extended period of time “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.”

Yingying's body has not yet been found. Her parents refuse to give up the search.

 

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