File photo of Zhang Yingying.
For more than four months, Zhang Ronggao has walked to his missing daughter's apartment almost every day. At first, he stood outside, hoping she would show up. But even after he was told she'd been kidnapped and was presumed dead, he has continued his routine.
"It brings peace and comfort to my heart," Ronggao explained in Mandarin.
His daughter, Zhang Yingying, a 26-year-old visiting student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, disappeared June 9 on her way to sign an apartment lease. A former graduate student has been charged with kidnapping and killing Zhang, whose body has not been found.
A few days ago, Zhang's father made a final visit to the Orchard Downs apartments with his wife, 24-year-old son and daughter's boyfriend as they prepared to return to China. They arrived here after Zhang vanished, hopeful in the beginning that she'd be found alive. After authorities relayed the grim news, they decided to stay until her remains were found so they could take her home for a proper burial in accordance with Chinese customs.
There were preparing to leave Sunday, reluctantly, without her, aware that there's no way of knowing when the cruel mystery will be solved.
Zhang's mother, Ye Lifeng, is in fragile health; she broke down at the start of a recent court hearing. Each day, she waits, like the rest of the family, in agony.
"We don't know where she is, and I don't know how to spend the rest of my life without my daughter," said Ye, her face tear-stained and voice trembling as she spoke. "I can't really sleep well at night. … I often dream of my daughter, and she's right there with me. I want to ask the mother of the suspect, please talk to her son and ask him what he did to my daughter. Where is she now? I want to know the answer."
Authorities have not said how Zhang died. Brendt Christensen, 28, was charged in July with abduction and then last month accused in a superseding indictment of kidnapping resulting in death "in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse to the victim." That carries the possibility of the death penalty. Christensen's lawyer declined comment.
Federal prosecutors claim that Zhang, who arrived on campus in April, had missed a bus and was worried she was late to sign an apartment lease when Christensen lured her into his car. Surveillance video showed her getting into the front seat of a black Saturn Astra the FBI alleges was cleaned in a way to conceal evidence.
Audio surveillance captured Christensen talking about how he abducted Zhang and brought her back to his apartment, where she "fought and resisted" while he held her against her will, according to prosecutors. They contend he also talked about who makes an "ideal victim," but prosecutors would not identify whom Christensen was speaking with or the source of those conversations.
A federal complaint disclosed that Christensen used his phone in April to visit a fetish networking site online, viewing threads titled "perfect abduction fantasy" and "planning a kidnapping." Christensen, who earlier this year earned a master's degree in physics, appeared at a campus vigil for Zhang in June before he was arrested.
Zhang's disappearance has rippled far beyond this quiet central Illinois community, generating headlines and discussion in Chinese newspapers and social media sites about the American justice system, the capabilities of law enforcement, and whether scholars who study in the U.S> are safe.
Some 5,600 Chinese students attend the university – more than any other college in the nation. The Urbana-Champaign area typically has no more than a few homicides a year.