Kid­nap sus­pect once top scholar

Chi­nese vic­tim be­lieved dead

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Sara Burnett

CHICAGO» The 28-yearold Illi­nois man charged with kid­nap­ping a Chi­nese scholar now be­lieved to be dead was among a se­lect few ad­mit­ted to the Univer­sity of Illi­nois’ highly com­pet­i­tive physics grad­u­ate pro­gram in 2013.

Brendt Allen Chris­tensen orig­i­nally planned to earn a doc­tor­ate de­gree, but told his grad­u­ate ad­viser in 2016 he had changed his mind, Pro­fes­sor Lance Cooper re­called on Satur­day. He didn’t say why, and Chris­tensen con­tin­ued tak­ing classes and teach­ing as a grad­u­ate as­sis­tant. He earned his master’s de­gree in mid-May.

Chris­tensen is in fed­eral cus­tody await­ing a court ap­pear­ance Mon­day in the June 9 kid­nap­ping of Yingy­ing Zhang, the 26-year-old daugh­ter of a work­ing-class fac­tory driver from China. Weeks ago, Zhang ar­rived at the univer­sity to con­duct re­search in agri­cul­tural sciences and planned to be­gin work on her doc­tor­ate in the fall. Her body hasn’t been found.

A crim­i­nal com­plaint ac­cuses Chris­tensen, of Cham­paign, Ill., of ab­duct­ing Zhang shortly after she stepped off a bus near the univer­sity cam­pus. Video from nearby cam­eras showed Zhang, on her way to sign a lease for an apart­ment, try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to flag down an­other bus. Min­utes later, she’s seen get­ting into a black Saturn As­tra.

Ac­cord­ing to an af­fi­davit filed in fed­eral court, Chris­tensen was un­der sur­veil­lance Thurs­day when agents over­heard him ex­plain­ing he had kid­napped Zhang. Au­thor­i­ties say agents be­lieve Zhang is no longer alive based on that and other facts the in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered.

The charg­ing doc­u­ment says his smart­phone was used to visit an on­line fo­rum in April called “Ab­duc­tion 101.” One of the threads on the fo­rum, which was vis­ited months be­fore Zhang went miss­ing, was en­ti­tled, “Per­fect ab­duc­tion fan­tasy.” An­other was about “plan­ning a kid­nap­ping.”

Some 5,600 Chi­nese stu­dents are en­rolled at the univer­sity — more than at any other col­lege in the nation — and Zhang’s dis­ap­pear­ance fed anx­i­eties of fam­i­lies of Chi­nese stu­dents study­ing in the U.S.

Mean­while, the charges came as a shock to some who knew Chris­tensen at the univer­sity. Cooper, a di­rec­tor of the grad­u­ate pro­gram, said he’d re­ceived no in­di­ca­tion of any­thing un­usual.

“There are many ways in which we find out there are prob­lems with stu­dents,” Cooper said. “We get re­ports they’re not teach­ing well. We get re­ports from fac­ulty that they’re not do­ing well in classes, they’re not show­ing up for classes. None of those flags were raised.”

Former class­mate Sou­vik Dutta said he was “dumb­founded” by the news, re­call­ing Chris­tensen as a nice guy and “very calm.”

Pub­lic records show Chris­tensen lived pre­vi­ously in Stevens Point, Wis., and his LinkedIn pro­file states he grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son in 2013 with bach­e­lor’s de­grees in physics and math. Rel­a­tives couldn’t be reached for com­ment.

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