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Police Department - University of Illinois at Urbana - Champaign

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Updates on our search for a missing scholar

The University of Illinois Police Department is searching for Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar who has been missing since June 9. We know our campus community has questions, and we want to keep you updated on the investigation.

On this page…

Updates

July 25

The search for Yingying Zhang continues to be a priority of the University of Illinois Police Department, the FBI and the Illinois State Police. Authorities continue to use every available technological and forensic investigative resource to continue the search. The investigation will be ongoing until Ms. Zhang is found. The public is still encouraged to submit any information they may have through the contact information listed on this page.

The person arrested for Ms. Zhang’s kidnapping has pleaded not guilty and remains in custody. The plea is an early step in what can become a complex judicial process.

We understand that the incident has presented a number of safety concerns for members of our campus community. Our campus is still a very safe area, but it is important to note that no community is immune from crime. For more information about crime on our campus, you can review our Annual Security and Fire Safety Report. To learn more about safety services available and what you can do to look out for yourself and others, please visit our campus safety page.

We have also made available a list of answers to commonly asked questions about the safety of our international students and scholars.

July 14

This morning, the Zhang family and Champaign County Crime Stoppers announced an increased reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the location of Yingying.

The family read this statement during the news conference:

We were devastated when Yingying went missing, and the revelation that someone likely kidnapped her has been heartbreaking. We continue to maintain hope that she has survived this horrible ordeal until we find her. We want to bring her home.

In hopes that someone, somewhere has information on where to find Yingying, we are increasing the reward for information about her location up to $50,000. We would consider additional reward, if anyone can bring her back safely.

Yingying is our pride and joy. She is smart, hard-working, brave and kind. Her dream was to complete her education and return to China to become a university professor, support her family and share her knowledge with students for years to come. We know Yingying wants to be with us and we will not leave the United States without her.

We are grateful for the help and support of so many people and organizations, and we want to publicly thank the Chinese Consulate and University, Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Chinese American Association of Central Illinois, Fujian Association in Chicago, Peking University Alumni Association, Sun Yat-Sen University Alumni Association, volunteers and media for all the support you have been giving to our family. We want to particularly thank U of I Credit Union for your generous help on managing the fund and trust. We are also grateful for attorneys Zhidong Wang, Roaa al-Heeti, Steve Beckett and David Thies for their wise counsel and kindness. We appreciate the work of the U of I Police Department, Crime Stoppers, Illinois State Police, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney, but our number one priority is to find Yingying, and for that, we need your help. If you have any information that might help investigators find Yingying, please help us by sharing it – anonymously – with Crime Stoppers.

Investigators were able to make an arrest, in part because of information shared with them by people in Champaign-Urbana. We are so grateful for their courage and compassion, and we hope that others who might have additional information will follow that example and help us find Yingying. Thank you.

Visit the University of Illinois Police Department’s Facebook page for the full video of the news conference, which also included a statement from Champaign County Crime Stoppers and questions from the news media.

Those who may have information can submit anonymous tips to Champaign County Crime Stoppers by calling 217-373-TIPS (8477), online at http://373tips.com or by using the P3 Tips mobile app available on iOS or Android. Tips must be submitted through Crime Stoppers to be eligible for the reward. The Crime Stoppers reward is separate and not linked to the $10,000 reward offered by the FBI for information leading to the location of Ms. Zhang.

Calls and messages to Crime Stoppers are routed to a third-party call center, which strips all identifying information from the call before forwarding the information to police. Callers are assigned a unique identifying number.

July 12

A federal grand jury today indicted 28-year-old Brendt Christensen on charges of kidnapping. The Acting U.S. Attorney Patrick D. Hansen and FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Cox announced the indictment in a press release:

A federal grand jury today returned an indictment that charges Brendt A. Christensen, 28, of Champaign, Ill., with kidnapping visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang on June 9, 2017. Christensen was previously arrested and charged by criminal complaint on June 30. On July 5, U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric I. Long ordered that Christensen remain detained in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending trial.

The date for arraignment for Christensen will be scheduled by the U.S. Clerk of the Court in Urbana. A preliminary hearing that had been scheduled on July 14, has been cancelled.

Click here to read the full news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Central District of Illinois.

The kidnapping remains under investigation, and the University of Illinois Police Department, FBI and Illinois State Police are continuing their search for Yingying. The case remains a top priority.

July 5

Update: A judge ruled Wednesday that the defendant be held without bail, meaning he will remain in custody indefinitely through the court proceedings.

The person arrested in the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service after a judged ordered this week that he be held without bond. He is due back in court at 3 p.m. July 5 for a bond hearing.

The search for Ms. Zhang continues to be a top priority, and police are pursuing a number of methods which could help investigators find her. We are still encouraging anyone with information to contact us through the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or 1-800-CALL-FBI. Information may also be submitted anonymously through Champaign County Crime Stoppers at http://373tips.com, 217-373-TIPS or through the P3 Tips mobile app. Messages to Crime Stoppers are routed through a third-party service and are stripped of any identifying information before the tip is forwarded to police.

This investigation has been very difficult for a lot of people in our campus community, especially those close to Ms. Zhang. We would like to remind anyone who may have been affected by these events that there are resources available through the Counseling Center. Please visit the Counseling Center website for more information.

Thank you for your continued support of one another, and please continue to keep Ms. Zhang’s family, friends and loved ones in your thoughts.

June 30

This evening, police arrested Brendt A. Christensen, 28, of Champaign, on charges of kidnapping in the disappearance of Yingying Zhang.

From the Department of Justice news release:

Late today, FBI agents arrested a Champaign, Ill., man, Brendt Christensen, 28, on a criminal complaint that charges Christensen with kidnapping visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang on June 9, 2017. Christensen will remain in law enforcement custody pending his initial federal court appearance in Urbana scheduled on Monday, July 3, at 10:00 a.m.

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

The affidavit filed in support of the complaint alleges that on June 9, Christensen was driving the black Saturn Astra which was observed on security camera video as it stopped next to Zhang at the corner of W. Clark St. and N. Goodwin Ave., at approximately 2:00 p.m. Zhang is observed on video entering the front passenger side of the vehicle. The vehicle then pulled away and proceeded northbound on N. Goodwin Ave.

Since Zhang was last seen in the video entering the car, the FBI, the University of Illinois Police Department and the Illinois State Police and local law enforcement have worked around the clock to locate Ms. Zhang and to investigate her disappearance. As part of this effort, 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 Ms. Zhang.

According to the affidavit, on June 29, 2017, while Christensen was under law enforcement surveillance, agents overheard him explaining that he 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.

Members of Ms. Zhang’s family, the Chinese consulate, and University of Illinois officials have been advised of Christensen’s arrest and the evidence in the possession of the FBI.

Members of the public are reminded that a complaint is merely an accusation; the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Click here to read the news release in full.

You can view the criminal complaint here.

Our thoughts and hearts are with the family, friends and loved ones of Yingying Zhang. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Counseling Center has made resources available to campus community members who have been affected by this news.

Chancellor Robert Jones sent this message to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus community Friday night:

There are no words that can explain why or how such a terrible thing should happen nor is there anything I might say that will ease the grief of any of you who knew her. 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.

Continue to read the full message.

June 27

The FBI has announced that investigators located the black Saturn Astra used in the abduction of Yingying Zhang.

From the news release:

The car was described as a black Saturn Astra four-door hatchback. The University of Illinois Police Department and FBI have received numerous leads regarding the vehicle, and we are announcing we have located the vehicle. We will not need any further information from the public regarding the Black Saturn Astra.

We have developed several additional leads and would like to remind the public that this is still an active investigation. We continue to ask the public for information that could lead to locating Ms. Zhang. The FBI continues to offer a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the location of Yingying Zhang. Anyone with information can contact 1-800-CALLFBI (1-800-225-5324).

Click here to read the full news release.

June 26

Investigators continue their work to analyze security camera footage, electronic information, tips and other information. This is a very meticulous effort which must proceed quickly but thoroughly. The FBI has some of the best experts in the country scrutinizing every detail that may help break the case.

In addition to the English version, the FBI has produced the missing person flyer in Chinese (simplified and traditional). Please continue to download, print and distribute the flyers widely.

June 24

The Zhang family shared with us additional photos of Yingying. Please share them widely.

If you have any information about Yingying’s whereabouts, please call 911 or 800-CALL-FBI. You can also leave anonymous tips with Champaign County Crime Stoppers by calling 217-373-TIPS or by visiting http://373tips.com. Tips leading to an arrest or Yingying’s location are eligible for a reward up to $40,000 through Crime Stoppers or $10,000 through the FBI.

Click here for additional images of Yingying to share.

June 23

Yesterday evening, representatives from the University of Illinois Police Department, FBI, Champaign County Crime Stoppers, Counseling Center, International Student and Scholar Services, Chinese Students and Scholars Association, and other groups held a public forum to discuss community support for the search for Yingying.

FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jon Holloway expressed that the FBI has made this case a top priority nationwide. He said he has access to the full resources of the FBI, and more agents are working this one case than typically work the Springfield division’s entire 84-county region.

U. of I. Police Chief Jeff Christensen said that the department has also enlisted every available technological and human resource to work the case.

Other speakers reminded attendees of available resources including those offered by the Counseling Center and the International Student and Scholar Services office.

Investigators expressed again that, though they wish they could divulge more information about the case, they cannot comment on specific details of the investigation in order to protect its integrity and maintain the best possible chance of finding Yingying.

June 21

From Police Chief Jeff Christensen’s email message to the campus community:

“We realize that this has been a source of anxiety for our entire campus community. Our concern for Yingying grows with each day that passes, and we have personally witnessed the pain this uncertain time has created for her family members, friends and colleagues. While we cannot share specific details on the investigation in order to maintain its integrity and direction, we continue to make progress in our search, and we will not give up until we find her.”

Click here to read the full message.

June 19

The Zhang family announced on Monday that they are working with Champaign County Crime Stoppers to offer a reward of up to $40,000 for information leading to an arrest in the disappearance of Yingying Zhang.

Those who may have information can submit anonymous tips to Champaign County Crime Stoppers by calling 217-373-TIPS (8477), online at http://373tips.com or by using the P3 Tips mobile app available on iOS or Android. Tips must be submitted through Crime Stoppers to be eligible for the reward. The Crime Stoppers reward is separate and not linked to the $10,000 reward offered by the FBI for information leading to the location of Ms. Zhang.

Calls and messages to Crime Stoppers are routed to a third-party call center, which strips all identifying information from the call before forwarding the information to police. Callers are assigned a unique identifying number.

Information from the public continues to be an important part of the investigation, and detectives are following up on hundreds of tips already received.

Investigators from the University of Illinois Police Department, Illinois State Police and FBI continue to work around the clock, taking advantage of various technological resources and following leads.

We again thank community members for supporting Ms. Zhang, her family and friends, and for their continued assistance in the investigation. Please continue to look out for and support each other.

Those interested in further information about campus safety services can visit http://police.illinois.edu/services/campus-safety-tips/.

June 17

The FBI is now offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the location of Ms. Zhang.

Investigators from the University of Illinois Police Department, the Illinois State Police and the FBI continue to move forward with the investigation, but information from the public remains an important part of the case.

Anyone with information concerning the disappearance or the whereabouts of Ms. Zhang can contact the FBI at 1-800-CALLFBI (1-800-225-5324) or tips.fbi.gov. Additionally, those wishing to submit information can do so completely anonymously by contacting Champaign County Crime Stoppers at 217-373-TIPS (217-373-8477), 373tips.com or via the P3 Tips mobile app.

Law enforcement and university officials on Saturday also met with Ms. Zhang’s family, who arrived in Champaign-Urbana. Accommodations have been made for them to stay on campus while the search continues.

The U of I Community Credit Union has set up an account and a GoFundMe campaign to cover the family’s living expenses during their time on campus. Those wishing to donate may do so through the website or by visiting any of the U of I Community Credit Union’s three branches.

The University of Illinois Police Department again thanks the community for its continued support of Ms. Zhang, her family and friends, and those who have volunteered to find Ms. Zhang.

June 15

This evening, representatives from the University of Illinois Police Department, Office of the Dean of Students, International Student and Scholar Services and others met with students and visiting scholars to provide more insight and share information about ongoing investigation, as well as introduce some resources that may find useful. This FAQ sheet also was distributed, and it addresses common questions which community members have had on social media and elsewhere.

Police officials are urging that community members not misinterpret a lack of updates as a sign that no progress is being made. Dozens of police officers are working on the case, and the entire University of Illinois Police Department — as well as the Illinois State Police and FBI investigators working the case — are singularly focused on finding Ms. Zhang.

Although the investigation is moving forward very quickly, we are unable to comment on many specifics of the case both to protect the integrity of the investigation and make sure we can find Ms. Zhang as quickly as possible.

Detectives have used vehicle records to identify a number of registered owners of the type of vehicle in the video, and they continue to speak to those owners. Investigators continue to utlize image enhancing technology available through the FBI. Information about the search is being shared widely, reaching more than 1 million people on social media, on billboards throughout the state, and through media both locally and throughout the country. These are just a few of the things we are doing at this time.

We have received lots of questions about what volunteers can do to help. We encourage you to continue to share accurate information on social media and elsewhere, and consider printing and distributing this bulletin to local businesses and other highly-visible areas.

If you have any information, please call 911 or the University of Illinois Police Department at 217-333-1216. Non-emergency information may be emailed to police@illinois.edu. You can also share information anonymously by contacting Champaign County Crime Stoppers at 373tips.com, calling 217-373-TIPS (8477) or by downloading the P3 Tips mobile app (for iOS or Android).

June 14

We continue to ask for help from the public in spreading the word about our search for Ms. Zhang. We have made this public bulletin available for distribution or posting wherever you deem appropriate. The FBI has also published a poster available for download.

Our investigation continues to progress with assistance from the FBI and the Illinois State Police. This is a very complex search, and investigators are working hard to follow-up on a large amount of information. We will continue to post updates as there are developments.

June 13

We have received many pieces of information and our detectives continue to work around the clock to develop new information. We continue to work with rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, cellphone companies, check vehicle records and we have pursued other information offered to us by members of the public. We are very thankful for this information and continue to encourage anyone who may know something about the black Saturn Astra or anyone who may have information about her whereabouts to contact us by phone at 217-333-1216 or email, police@illinois.edu.

We are deeply troubled anytime we believe a member of our campus community may be in danger, but we are very grateful for our community’s support for Ms. Zhang. We are doing everything we can to search for her, including the use of resources offered by our partner law enforcement agencies and the FBI. Please continue to look out for each other, support each other, and keep Ms. Zhang as well as her family and friends in your thoughts.

June 12

For additional information, please read Chief Christensen’s June 12 message to the campus community.

June 11

For information about the search, please read Police Chief Jeff Christensen’s June 11 message to the campus community.

June 10

Our initial message seeking information about Ms. Zhang was posted on Facebook at 2:32 p.m.

Frequently asked questions

What are police doing to find Ms. Zhang?

Following the arrest made on June 30, the investigation into Ms. Zhang’s whereabouts is ongoing. Although we cannot release many specific details of our investigation, we are exploring a number of routes which we hope may help us find Ms. Zhang. We have also released a number of still photos and videos to the public with hope that someone may have information as to Ms. Zhang’s whereabouts. If you have any information, please call 911 or the University of Illinois Police Department at 217-333-1216. Non-emergency information may be emailed to police@illinois.edu. You can also share information anonymously by contacting Champaign County Crime Stoppers at 373tips.com, calling 217-373-TIPS (8477) or by downloading the P3 Tips mobile app (for iOS or Android).

Is Ms. Zhang in danger?

We are deeply concerned anytime someone cannot be contacted for an extended period of time. In a news release issued on June 30, the FBI indicated that police believe Ms. Zhang is no longer alive.

There have been reports of a black sedan whose driver poses as an undercover police officer to lure people into the car. Is that connected?

Detectives were alerted to that report via social media after the investigation began. We have spoken to at least one person who reported that, and we gathered valuable information about that encounter. At this point, we do not have information to say definitively that it is connected, but we also cannot rule it out. It is among the scenarios which we are investigating.

What can I do to help?

We are asking the public to be observant, to take a look at the images and videos we have released (below), and to contact us if you have any information. Even small pieces of information can be tremendously helpful. Stay up to date on the investigation, and help us disseminate accurate information. The more people to whom we can deliver verified, accurate information, the more likely we are to find Yingying. We are very appreciative of the help many of you have already provided.

Does this incident present a danger to the general public?

Even under normal circumstances, we always ask members of our community to be observant, to be aware of their surroundings and to call police if they notice anything suspicious. That remains the case here. Should you ever feel uncomfortable or concerned for your safety, please call 911 immediately.


Images and video

The University of Illinois Police Department has released the following still images and video, which we hope may help community members contribute to the investigation. If you have any information regarding these photos, vehicle information or anything else, please call 911 or contact the University of Illinois Police Department at 217-333-1216. Non-emergency information may also be emailed to police@illinois.edu.

Yingying Zhang
Yingying Zhang.

In this security video from the B-4 parking garage on North Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, just after 2 p.m. Friday, Ms. Zhang is seen standing on the east side of Goodwin Avenue as a black Saturn Astra (unknown year) pulls up beside her. She and the driver speak for some time before she enters the vehicle, which then continues north on Goodwin Avenue. The very last clip of the video is a closer view of the vehicle, just before picking up Ms. Zhang.

Yingying Zhang boarded an MTD Teal line bus at the south shelter at Orchard Downs at 1:35 p.m. on Friday, June 9. She exited the bus at Springfield and Mathews avenues in Urbana at 1:52 p.m. Friday. At the time, she was wearing a charcoal gray hat with a white logo on the front. She has shoulder length brown hair, glasses, and a white/pink flannel print long sleeve shirt, white undershirt, jeans, white shoes, and a navy backpack.

Ms. Zhang outside the Teal line bus.
Ms. Zhang outside the Teal line bus.


Ms. Zhang inside the Teal line bus.
Ms. Zhang inside the Teal line bus.


Ms. Zhang was wearing this shirt on Friday, June 9.
Ms. Zhang was wearing this shirt on Friday, June 9.


Ms. Zhang was carrying this backpack on Friday, June 9.
Ms. Zhang was carrying this backpack on Friday, June 9.

Additional images of Yingying

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