News Local/State

Jury Gets Physical Evidence In Christensen Trial

Entrance to the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Peoria.

Entrance to the Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in downtown Peoria, where the Brendt Christensen trial is being held. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

Testimony resumes Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Peoria, in the capital murder trial of Brendt Christensen. The former grad student is accused of kidnapping and killing University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang of China in 2017.

In Tuesday’s testimony, a woman took the stand who says she was stopped on the University of Illinois campus by Christensen, on the same morning that Zhang went missing.

Emily Hogan told the jury Christensen showed her an ID with a silver star on it and said he was an undercover officer. He asked her to get in his vehicle for questioning. But Hogan said “no,” quickly walked to her bus, called police and posted a warning on Facebook. She later picked Christensen out of a 6-person photo line-up.

The testimony got a little heated, when Charles Hill was on the stand. Hill’s isolation cell was next door to Christensen at the Macon County Jail in Decatur, while both were in custody there.

Hill said he was only testifying because he was forced to by the FBI, and that he "took a liking" to Christensen, while the two were in jail together. Hill responded defensively when Christensen’s attorney’s asked him to recall exactly what he said to the FBI about what Christensen had told him about having a badge and police radio with him, as well as zip ties, when Zhang got into his vehicle.

Hill also testified that Christensen told him Zhang “freaked out” got out of his car after he took a wrong turn ---- a statement that Christensen also made under police examination. Christensen's defense team questioned Hills’ credibility on cross-examination, citing his lengthy rap sheet.

McHenry County K-9 Handler Jeremy Bruketta also took the stand Tuesday. He was one of two dog handlers that worked on the Zhang investigation. Bruketta’s dog Sage, who died in March, was trained  for cadaver searches. Bruketta said Sage hit on the vanity in the main bathroom of Christensen’s apartment --- the same location where Christensen said he took Zhang to kill her, in a secretly recorded FBI recording . Defense attorney’s questioned why the dog focused on the vanity in the bathroom, where they say no physical evidence was found. They also asked questioned why Sage did not respond to the carpet, where they say lab evidence will show there was a larger amount of blood evidence.

Finally during Tuesday’s testimony, the jury heard from members of the FBI’s evidence recovery teams, who removed pieces of Christensen’s apartment for lab testing. The jurors were shone part of the wall behind the headboard area of Chrstensen’s bed, pieces of carpet, carpet tackboard and baseboard from along the wall.

Special Agent Douglas Seccombe testified that the contents of the apartment they collected all appeared to have undergone extensive cleaning. But the underside of the carpet and its tackboard still showed blood. They also tested positive for blood at the scene. During the evidence search of Christensen’s apartment conducted on June 30 and July 1, 2017, FBI agents also collected the vanity, and drain traps from his bathtub and sink. Prosecutors are using the physical evidence to help prove that Christensen killed Zhang in his apartment.

An FBI forensic lab expert, and Christensen’s former girlfriend, who wore an FBI wire to record conversations with him, are scheduled to testify when the trial resumes on Wednesday afternoon. Judge Shadid called off Wednesday’s morning session, due to the funeral of Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady, who died last week.

The federal trial in Peoria could go to the jury by the end of the week. Judge James Shadid says if not, jury deliberations in the Brendt Christensen trial are likely to start early next week.