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Judge orders suspect in abduction of Chinese scholar held without bail

Brendt Christensen, suspect in the kidnapping of visiting University of Illinois Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. Authorities said facts in the case indicate that Zhang is dead, although her body hasn't been found. | Macon County (Ill.) Sheriff's Office photo, distributed by the Associated Press

Hundreds of people gathered outside a federal courthouse in Urbana on Monday 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 9 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 bail 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.

Just a day before his arrest, Christensen was seen at a campus rally where demonstrators gathered to show support for Zhang, CNN reported.

A photo taken by CNN’s Kaylee Hartung at Thursday’s rally shows Brendt Christensen in the upper right corner wearing a black T-shirt. | CNN

On Monday, Long ordered Christensen to return to court in Urbana on Wednesday to determine bail. A preliminary hearing was set for July 14, 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, 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 June 9. Authorities announced that they believed she was abducted after viewing surveillance video showing her climbing into a vehicle. Authorities charged Christensen on Friday 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 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.

Anyone can register on the site and become a member in a process that takes just a few minutes and requires no independent verification. Users provide their ages, genders and roles they wish to play, but otherwise remain anonymous.

Yingying Zhang’s father Ronggao Zhang (left) and her friend Xiaolin Hou carry a banner as community members walk for Yingying, a Chinese scholar who went missing in early June. | Holly Hart/The News-Gazette via AP

Authorities say Christensen kidnapped Zhang during the day as she headed to sign a lease for an apartment and was running late. She tried unsuccessfully to flag down a bus, and minutes later, is seen getting into a Saturn Astra the complaint says belonged to Christensen. While authorities say facts in the case indicate Zhang isn’t alive, a body hasn’t been found.

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.