The former physics PhD candidate accused of kidnapping a missing visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois allegedly conducted searches on abduction fantasies on a fetish website, according to a criminal complaint obtained by PEOPLE.
Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign, briefly appeared in federal court Monday and did not enter a plea, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman tells PEOPLE. He is charged with kidnapping in the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, a scholar in the university’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences who authorities presume is dead.
Zhang went missing on June 9 at about 2 p.m. after last being seen getting into a black Saturn Astra hatchback, which police allege belongs to Christensen.
After police linked Christensen to the car, they placed him under surveillance and captured him on an audio recording explaining how he kidnapped Zhang and brought her back to his apartment, the complaint alleges. Based on the fact that Zhang is still missing, as well as “other factors uncovered during the investigation,” authorities believe Zhang is dead, the complaints states.
In April, Christensen allegedly visited the website FetLife.com — which describes itself as “the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community” — and visited the forum “Abduction 101.” In the forum, he allegedly viewed sub-threads called “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping.”
(The site’s policy guidelines state that any interactions, whether online or in person, must be consensual and between adults.)
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According to the complaint, Zhang accepted a ride from a stranger, believed to be Christensen, because she was running late to sign a lease on a new apartment. Prior to her getting into the car, surveillance footage captured her trying to flag down a public bus, but the bus continued past her without stopping, the complaint states.
When authorities searched the black Saturn, its front passenger door “appeared to have been cleaned to a more diligent extent than the other vehicle doors,” which authorities believe “may be indicative of an attempt to conceal or destroy evidence.”
‘There Were No Red Flags’
Zhang was one month into a yearlong program at the university studying photosynthesis and crop productivity, a university spokesperson previously told PEOPLE.
After she went missing, Zhang’s father, aunt and boyfriend arrived at the school from China.
“I have faith that my niece will eventually come back. This is all we can do, to keep believing.” Ye Liqin, Zhang’s aunt, told the South China Morning Post.
Zhang’s father spent Father’s Day searching for his daughter, the Post reports, and told Beijing Youth Daily he would never let his daughter return to the U.S. if she had been found.
Lance Cooper, Christensen’s former academic adviser in the physics graduate program, told CNN, “Everybody is shocked by this.”
Cooper added, “There were no flags, no discipline issues with him, no problem with his teaching, no problems with his coursework.”
Christensen is currently in the custody of the U.S. Marshals and is being held without bond, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman. He will appear in court again on Wednesday to determine if he will receive bond.
Christensen’s attorney, Evan Bruno, tells PEOPLE, “I encourage everyone to have respect for this process that gives him a presumption of innocence, and to understand the information to the public is limited.”