‘Please tell me where my daughter is’

Yingying Zhang’s family opens up about alleged kidnapping

By Karen Liu, Staff Writer

For more than two months, Yingying Zhang’s family waits for answers in a dimly lit, one-story house day after day.

The family sat on a set of couches facing away from the window in their rented Urbana home Thursday afternoon, looking at the otherwise empty living room during long moments of silence, which were only interrupted by Yingying’s father’s deep sighs.

Lifeng Ye, Yingying’s mother, said she never met suspect Brendt Christensen’s family, though she wanted to. She wanted to learn more about the man who allegedly kidnapped her daughter.

“(Christensen’s) mother is also a mother, so it must be painful for her too. I just want to beg his mother, ask him to tell me where my daughter is,” she said, her voice muffled through cries. “Every mother’s worst nightmare is something like this happening to her child. I stand here every day and look out the window, hoping to see my daughter.”

Most of Zhang’s family arrived in the United States in June, but not Ye. She came on Aug. 19. Nearly two months later, she finally saw Christensen for the first time in court on Oct. 11. 

Zhang said it was a painful experience. She had to be escorted out before the session started after breaking down in tears.

“I really wanted to kill him, but then, I think about his mother,” she said. “Let him take the consequences and take the punishment. If punishment is what he deserved, then punishment is what he should get.”

Ye said it’s hard for the family to come all the way from China, have to quickly learn English and have to wait for so long to find Yingying, whom the FBI presumes dead. Ye’s words were interrupted several times by her crying, and she had to be comforted by Xiaolin Hou, Yingying’s long-time boyfriend.

“I am in pain, every night when I go to bed. I hardly get any sleep. I just keep having dreams about my daughter. Please tell me where my daughter is,” Ye said. “Without her, I don’t know how I will go on. I keep dreaming about my daughter. Where is my daughter?”

Courtesy of Xiaolin Hou
Yingying poses with her family at a train station before leaving home to come to the US.

Ronggao Zhang, Yingying’s father, agreed Christensen’s parents should take some responsibility for their son’s actions to earn Yingying’s family’s forgiveness.

“My daughter is innocent,” Zhang said. “My daughter doesn’t even know him but was harmed by him for no reason. How can we ever accept that?”

Hou said they know nothing about the attitude of Christensen’s family and have never had any interactions with them, but they are the only people who can have direct contact with Christensen at the moment.

“We hope (Christensen’s) family can find the conscience in their hearts to help us and to talk to him for us,” Hou said.

Hou has known Yingying since college. He called her a kind, passionate person. She’s always been forgiving to everyone, and she has always been there for anyone who might need help, Hou said.

“There’s a saying in Chinese: The kind will always be rewarded, and the evil will always be punished,” Hou said. “We just don’t understand how such a catastrophe can happen to a girl as kind as her.”

Yingying’s father described her as a smart, respectful and hardworking person.

“The one thing I am the most proud of her is that she worked hard ever since she was a little kid and grew up to be someone who always gives back to the family and the society,” he said.

Hou said Yingying’s dream was to become a college professor and to make contributions to her field of study. He said Yingying came to America because the College of ACES at the University is one of the best in the field.

“Studying abroad has always been a dream of hers,” he said. “She has always looked forward to coming to America to experience a different culture and meet different people. For the time that she was here, she was enjoying her busy life.”

Hou said part of the family’s life now is to work with the police and the FBI on aspects of the case that require help from the family, such as submission of evidence and plea bargaining. The family also uses their own resources, however limited, to search for leads in the Champaign-Urbana area.

“We don’t care about the quality of our lives now anymore. Every single day we are here feels like an entire year. It’s very painful,” Ronggao said.

Hou said the family can see the police and the prosecution working hard on the case and taking it seriously. They’re grateful.

“The process feels endless to us,” Hou said. “We really hope we can come to a conclusion a little sooner, because it has been four months, going on five months now, and we still have not heard anything about Yingying’s whereabouts.”

Hou said the family doesn’t actually know much about the case itself because the FBI can’t give out too much information due to evidence and secrecy.

“There are so many questions about this case that we can’t figure out no matter how much we think about it day after day,” he said. “We can’t come up with a reasonable explanation as to how this happened for ourselves.”

Hou said the family is aware Christensen’s public attorneys are requesting more time to prepare for the case. It was painful for them to hear.

“We are all looking forward to getting some closure in February, or at least coming to a conclusion for the case, but the time is once again being pushed back. It’s really too long,” he said.

The family is planning on going back to China next month until the trial date or a significant development in the case.

“Our expenses and living costs will be lower if we go back to China,” Yingying’s father said. “(Yingying’s) mother’s health has not been in good condition. She had to go to the doctor a few days ago.”

Hou said they are worried Yingying’s mother’s health will get worse over the winter and that it would create more problems.

“The University and local Chinese communities have provided us a lot of help,” he said. “It might be the silver lining that we had come to Champaign, where there are a lot of Chinese people around to help us.”

Hou said they received tremendous help, both physically and mentally, from local students, professors, the Chinese community and churches. They can’t imagine continuing without the help of others.

As for after the case is closed, the family has yet to think that far into the future.

“The only thing we want is an answer, which is also why we stayed here for so long. All we want is to find Yingying,” Hou said.

Editors note: The reporter conucted the interview in Mandarin and translated it accordingly.

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Listen to our talk with Karen about her conversation with the Zhang family below.