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How Chinese police may have helped the FBI in Zhang Yingying kidnap case

Chinese police created sketch of suspected abductor and sent it to their American counterparts before the man was arrested in Illinois

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 2:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 9:20pm

Chinese police provided the FBI investigating the case of Chinese woman Zhang Yingying with an artist’s impression of her suspected abductor during the hunt for the missing student, according to Chinese state media.

The state-run Xinhua news agency described the sketch as “near identical”, although one Chinese facial recognition expert has questioned the claim.

Zhang, 26, was studying at Urbana, Illinois, in the United States and went missing early last month.

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She was spotted on surveillance footage stepping into a black car, later prompting a huge hunt for her and the suspected abductor.

The FBI arrested Brendt Christensen, 28, last Friday, charging him with Zhang’s kidnapping.

He is a graduate student at the same college where Zhang was studying – the University of Illinois. Law enforcement agencies believe Zhang is now dead.

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Chinese police attempted to reconstruct the suspect’s face from blurred video footage of Zhang stepping into the car and sent the sketched portrait to the US authorities on June 23, Xinhua said.

The FBI said Christensen came under suspicion as he owned a black Saturn Astra hatchback, the same kind of car seen on surveillance footage picking up Zhang before she disappeared.

He was also overheard saying that he had kidnapped Zhang, the FBI said in its charge sheet.

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The FBI and Illinois police department were not immediately available for comment.

The drawing was sketched by a Shandong province police officer, Lin Yuhui, who also works as a portrait expert for the International Criminal Court.

Lin said he and three colleagues closely analysed the surveillance footage provided by the US police, spending three days going through several thousand frames.

Only one frame showed a side of the suspect’s face.

Lin told the Chinese newspaper the Legal Evening News that the portrait captured the suspect’s overall “essence”, especially the eyes, but he did not deem it particularly accurate.

“He is a solidly built guy, neither fat nor thin … and I felt he could be quite handsome,” Lin was quoted as saying in the report.

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“In the beginning, I gave the man a lot of beard, but cut it short later. From the lower area of his hair, I felt the man should have a beard, be aged about 30, look mature, have deep eyes, a high nose and was probably white.

“But if we said [my portrait] is highly identical, that would be a lie,” he said.

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Shan Shiguang, the leader of the facial recognition team at the visual information processing and learning centre at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said he could not find many similarities between the sketch and the suspect’s portrait.

“There is a small amount of beard [on the portrait], the eyes are somewhat comparable. Other than those, I can’t find identical features,” he said.

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Shan said, however, that Chinese police had clearly tried to offer help in the case based on the limited evidence available.

The face of suspect in the video footage consisted only a few pixels and they contained little, if any, information with which to base a full picture, he said.

Even today’s most advanced computer technology armed with artificial intelligence algorithms and a large database could not produce a precise result, he said.

The portrait was “more a work of art than science”, he added.

Police artist Lin told the Legal Evening News that he was recommended to attempt the artist’s impression by the Chinese-born American forensic scientist Henry Chang-Yu Lee.

Lin demonstrated his ability to identify a face from photos with low pixels in a Chinese talent show earlier this year. Lee was then a judge on the show, the report said.

Chinese state media reported earlier last month that Lee had been drafted in to help the FBI in the hunt for Zhang.