Illinois kidnapping: sexual fetish site with ‘Abduction 101’ linked to suspect
A website that hosted an “Abduction 101” forum that has been linked to a suspect in the kidnapping of a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois bills itself as the world’s most popular sexual fetish site.
Brendt Allen Christensen, a physics graduate student, will appear in federal court on Monday, on charges of abducting 26-year-old Yingying Zhang in June. Investigators believe Zhang is dead, although her body has not been found.
The criminal complaint against Christensen says his phone was used in April to visit FetLife.com, on which one thread was entitled, “planning a kidnapping”.
The 10-year-old FetLife claims more than 5 million registered consenting adults as users. Its Canadian-based founder, John Baku, wrote in February that he had decided to prohibit hundreds of fetishes after the website was mentioned in criminal cases. As of Sunday, it still carried forums on abductions, including one called “Tools of the Kidnapper”.
Christensen, 28, was admitted to the University of Illinois’ highly competitive physics graduate program in 2013. He planned to earn a doctorate but told his graduate adviser in 2016 he had changed his mind, professor Lance Cooper recalled on Saturday. Christensen continued taking classes and teaching as a graduate assistant. He earned his master’s degree in mid-May.
Christensen is now in federal custody regarding the 9 June kidnapping of Zhang, the daughter of a factory driver from China who was at the university to conduct research in agricultural sciences and planned to begin work on a doctorate.
Hong Lei, China’s general consul in Chicago, visited Zhang’s family on Saturday and expressed condolences. Hong urged the US judicial system to hold a fair trial and mete out harsh punishment.
A criminal complaint accuses Christensen, of Champaign, Illinois, 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 to flag down another bus. Minutes later, she was seen getting into a black Saturn Astra.
According to an affidavit filed in federal court, Christensen was under surveillance on Thursday when agents overheard him saying 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 Christensen’s smartphone was used to visit the online forum “Abduction 101” in April. 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”.
The charges came as a shock to some who knew Christensen. Cooper, a director of the graduate program, said he saw 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.”
A former classmate, Souvik Dutta, said he was “dumbfounded” by the news, recalling Christensen as a normal guy and “very calm”.
Public records show Christensen has lived in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. His LinkedIn profile states that he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics. Relatives could not be reached or declined to speak on Saturday.
Illinois chancellor Robert Jones said in a statement the campus community is saddened that Zhang is believed to be dead.
“This is a senseless and devastating loss of a promising young woman and a member of our community,” Jones said. “There is nothing we can do to ease the sadness or grief for her family and friends, but we can and we will come together to support them in any way we can.”
According to the criminal complaint, investigators determined that 18 vehicles registered in Champaign County were similar to the one that picked up Zhang. One belonging to Christensen was first seen in an apartment complex parking lot on 12 June, days after Zhang went missing. Investigators questioned him.
The affidavit stated that Christensen could not recall what he was doing on the day Zhang disappeared. Investigators searched the vehicle but did not remove anything.
Investigators later determined the car in the video had a sunroof and cracked hubcap, like Christensen’s car, the affidavit states. When investigators interviewed Christensen again, he acknowledged driving around the campus and giving a ride to an Asian woman who said she was late for an appointment. Christensen said the woman panicked after he apparently made a wrong turn and he let her out in a residential area.
Christensen was placed under continuous surveillance on 16 June and his apartment was searched. On Thursday he was captured on an audio recording explaining how he took Zhang to his apartment and held her against her will, according to the affidavit.
Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, traveled to Illinois from Nanping, China. On Thursday, he took part in a walk with students and university staff to the corner where his daughter was last seen.
Zhang graduated last year with a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School. Friends and family said she dreamed of landing a professorship and helping her parents financially.
Some 5,600 Chinese students are enrolled at the University of Illinois – more than at any other college in the US. Zhang’s disappearance fed anxieties among families of Chinese students studying in the US.