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Yingying Zhang, 26, a Chinese visiting scholar at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, disappeared on June 9. Video surveillance shows her getting into a black Saturn Astra. The FBI is now investigating her disappearance as a kidnapping.
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Story highlights

Yingying Zhang is missing and presumed dead, authorities say

Suspect to be arraigned July 20

(CNN) —  

Brendt Christensen pleaded not guilty Thursday to one count of kidnapping in connection with the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, a University of Illinois student from China.

Zhang disappeared June 9 while on her way to sign an apartment lease. Law enforcement officials believe she is dead, according to a criminal complaint filed before Christensen, 28, was arrested on June 30.

He is due in court again on August 28 for a pretrial hearing. A trial has tentatively been scheduled for September 12.

Brendt Christensen, 28, is accused of kidnapping Yingying Zhang.
PHOTO: From Facebook
Brendt Christensen, 28, is accused of kidnapping Yingying Zhang.

The maximum penalty for someone convicted of kidnapping in federal court is life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

The maximum penalty for someone convicted of kidnapping in federal court is life in prison.

Suspect changes story, FBI says

Zhang, 26, was last seen getting into Christensen’s car at a bus stop on June 9, the complaint says, citing video evidence.

Authorities have said Christensen changed his story about what he was doing that day. At first he told them he couldn’t remember where he was at the time Zhang disappeared, the complaint says.

He first said he couldn’t remember where he was between 2 p. m. and 3 p. m. on the day of the kidnapping, the complaint says. He later told authorities he was probably sleeping or playing video games “at his residence all day,” the FBI agent writes in the complaint.

Days later, Christensen admitted to investigators he had picked up an Asian woman standing at a corner, the complaint says.

Christensen said he drove up to the woman, who told him she was late to an appointment, and offered her a ride, the FBI agent says.

Christensen also told authorities he may have made a wrong turn, and the woman panicked. At this moment, he said, he let his passenger out of the car a few blocks away from where she got into the car, the criminal complaint says.

Yingying Zhang working on an agricultural project in May.
PHOTO: Courtesy Guofang Miao
Yingying Zhang working on an agricultural project in May.

CNN photo shows suspect at vigil

Investigators searched Christensen’s phone and discovered an April 19 visit to the website FetLife – where the user visited a forum called “Abduction 101,” with threads called “Perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping,” authorities have said.

Efforts by CNN to reach administrators at the website were not successful.

Investigators sought search warrants and started their surveillance of Christensen on June 16. In their recordings, the suspect can allegedly be heard explaining how he kidnapped Zhang. Christensen says in the recording that Zhang fought him, and that he took her back to his apartment and held her there against her will, Bryan Freres, an assistant US attorney, told a federal judge at Christensen’s bail hearing.

PHOTO: Kaylee Hartung/CNN

On June 29, Christensen went to a vigil for the missing student, a photo taken by a CNN reporter shows.

FBI agents recorded his comments there, and Christensen “explained the characteristics of his ideal victim,” Freres said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, University of Illinois Police Department and Illinois State Police are searching for Zhang.

CNN’s Connor Spielmaker, Darran Simon, Holly Yan and Laura Díaz-Zúñiga contributed to this report.