Crime
Crime

Man Who Kidnapped Student Attended Her Tribute Rally (Photos)

| by Sarah Zimmerman

The man suspected of kidnapping and possibly murdering a visiting Chinese graduate student from the University of Illinois was seen attending a rally in her honor just one day before he was arrested. 

Brendt Christensen, a former physics Ph.D. candidate at the university, was arrested for his connection to the kidnapping Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar that disappeared June 9 and is now presumed dead.

Only a day before his arrest, The News-Gazette reported that he was possibly seen attending a tribute march in Zhang's honor outside the school's performing arts center. The walk was meant to be a public sign of support for Zhang's friends and family.

A photo of a man resembling Christensen at the event began circulating over Twitter. FBI spokesman Brad Ware declined to comment on the picture or whether Christensen was, in fact, at the rally. 

Zhang was last seen entering a black Saturn Astra, only weeks after she arrived at the Urbana-Champaign campus to study agricultural science, according to the Daily Mail. She had told friends that she was going to sign an apartment lease and sent a text to her landlord saying she would be late. 

Surveillance video shows that Zhang missed the bus despite her trying to flag it down. She walked four blocks to another bus stop when the Saturn Astra pulled up. After a brief conversation with the driver, she entered the vehicle. She was reported missing later that night.

According to CNN, Christensen may have visited an online forum called "Abduction 101" and looked at a number of threads, including ones titled, "Perfect abduction fantasy," and "planning a kidnapping."

His unusual car with its sunroof and cracked passenger hubcap matched the vehicle found on surveillance footage, leading to his arrest.

Christensen was described as "different" by one of his former workout partners, according to The News-Gazette. 

"He would nearly always come with a woman; I don’t know if she was his wife or his sister," said Jon Bowman, who commonly exercised with the Ph.D. student.

"Most of us who were working out were usually talkative and in a good mood, but Christensen was different," he continued. "He and the woman always wore black, and they kept to themselves. They never said anything to the rest of us."

Christensen remains in custody without bond and is due to make his first court appearance July 3. He has been preliminarily charged with federal kidnapping. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

If Zhang is found dead, Christensen's sentence could be harsher and he could face the death penalty. 

The University of Illinois has approximately 5,600 Chinese students -- more than any other U.S. college. Administrators worry that news of the kidnapping may hurt future admissions prospects.

Physics Professor Kevin Pitts hopes that the public will understand that the incident was "not in any way related to the larger institution, just because it's so far out there and completely separate, at least in my mind, from what's going on academically on campus."

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