Man held in Chinese scholar’s kidnapping once lived in Stevens Point, graduated from UW

CHICAGO  — Hundreds of people gathered outside a federal courthouse Monday, July 3rd as the suspect in the kidnapping of a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois made his first court appearance since he was arrested last week.

During the nine-minute hearing, 28-year-old Brendt Christensen did not speak other than to acknowledge to the federal judge that he understood his rights. U.S. Magistrate Eric Long ordered Christensen held without bond in the kidnapping of Yingying Zhang. Authorities say facts in the case indicate the 26-year-old Zhang is dead, although her body hasn’t been found.

Public records show Christensen lived previously in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, 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 or declined to speak to The Associated Press on Saturday, July 1st.

Long ordered Christensen to return to the court in Urbana on Wednesday, July 5th to determine bond. A preliminary hearing was set for July 14th, but that would be waived if a grand jury returns an indictment before then. The federal kidnapping charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette reported that about 45 people attended the hearing Monday morning, with another crowd in the courthouse lobby and yet more people across the street, many chanting “Justice for Yingying.”

After the hearing, Christensen’s attorney Evan Bruno said he has talked to Christensen a few times, but that “this case is very young and we haven’t had a really full opportunity to develop everything yet.”

Bruno asked the public to “be patient, to keep an open mind, wait ’till the evidence comes in.”

Zhang went missing on June 9th.

Authorities announced that they believed she was abducted after viewing surveillance video showing her climbing into a vehicle. Authorities charged Christensen on Friday, June 30th after federal agents heard him tell someone that he’d kidnapped Zhang and held her against her will.

Authorities say Zhang was trying to hurry to an apartment to sign a lease and had been unsuccessful in flagging down a bus when a car stopped. The video shows a woman authorities have said is Zhang climb into the vehicle in Urbana, 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.

Since then, details have emerged about Christensen, who had just earned a master’s degree in physics from the U of I this year, and the events leading up to Zhang’s disappearance.

According to authorities, a website that hosted an “Abduction 101” forum linked Christensen to the kidnapping of Zhang. According to the federal complaint, Christensen’s phone was used April 19 to visit that website, FetLife.com, including to view threads titled “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”

FetLife describes itself as “the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community,” stressing in online policy statements that it is a place for consenting adults to trade advice and images of themselves, and to arrange to meet. The acronym BDSM stands for bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. Users provide their ages, genders and roles they wish to play, but otherwise remain anonymous.

Established in 2008 by Canadian software developer John Baku, it now claims more than 5 million registered members.

FetLife prohibited hundreds of fetish categories this year after it was cited in several criminal cases, Baku said in a February online note to members. He said he wanted to reduce legal liability and risks to the wider community.

FetLife policy guidelines stress that any interaction online or in person must be between adults and consensual.

“FetLife’s community is … open-minded and non-judgmental,” it says, adding, “Our number one priority is to create a fun and safe place for kinksters.”

Neither FetLife nor Baku responded to messages seeking comment.

Zhang’s father traveled from China to Illinois in June for the search. Zhang, who received her master’s degree in environmental engineering in China last year, was described by friends and family as bright and caring. She aspired to one day land a professorship so she could help her family financially.