News Local/State

Jury Hears Recording Of Christensen Describing Zhang Murder

Peoria federal courthouse sign.

Sign for the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Peoria, where Brendt Christensen is being tried for the kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

Audio and video recordings were played for a federal jury in the murder-kidnapping trial of Brendt Christensen on Friday --- including a recording of Christensen’s chilling account of how he kidnapped and murdered Yingying Zhang, a promising young environmental engineer from China in June 2017. Please note: the details that follow could be disturbing.

Witnesses for the prosecution used the recordings to outline what led to Christensen’s arrest, and what may have been pivotal in the decision to seek the death penalty if he is found guilty --- even though Zhang’s body has not been recovered.

One key recording was made by Christensen’s then-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, who wore an FBI recording device to capture it. Bullis’ FBI handler, Special Agent Andrew Huckstadt, testified about the recording on Friday, and also provided a transcript to help jurors follow the audio. It was made on June 29, 2017. Christensen was drinking, and he and Bullis had attended a memorial walk and concert for Zhang, who had disappeared 20 days earlier. By now, the FBI had professional surveillance teams watching Christensen 24-hours a day.

Christensen knew he was being watched. He talked about it several times with Bullis in their recorded conversations, including the one recorded on the night of June 29. It was the “first time” he said he had talked with anyone about Zhang, or any of 12 other kidnapping and murders he claimed to have committed since he was about 19.

In the recording, Christensen said Zhang was, “stronger than any of the other victims I ever had.” He said her strength was “shocking,” in how she fought for her life after even after he choked her. “I choked her for about 10 minutes, and she didn’t die,” he said.

But Christensen also lamented he got “bored” with her in the roughly 20-minutes it took him to rape and kill Zhang. In fact, he said he “didn’t orgasm.”  “There was nothing to her,” he said. So he carried her to his bathtub and hit her, “as hard as he could” with his bat and “split her head open.”   

Christensen reiterated that Zhang was extremely “resilient, she didn’t die.” So, he said he “grabbed a knife and stabbed her in the neck. The [expletive] neck.” She “still didn’t die” and “was still grabbing for the knife.” Christensen said it, “was like she was supernatural,” and when she didn’t die then, he “cut her head off” to ensure it.  

Christensen shared all these details with Bullis, in casual conversation while the couple walked to look for a place to get a sandwich and he was trying to get her to let him sleep at her family’s home.   

In the same conversation, Christensen said Zhang was the 13th person he had killed, and the “only one” who had left evidence that led police back to him. He said he considered himself a successful serial killer, that he had “caught the nation’s attention.”

As he marveled at his alleged accomplishments, Christensen also said, “She’s gone! They will never find her. I will never tell them.” He noted that Zhang’s family had traveled to Champaign-Urbana from China, hoping to find her, and did not want to leave the country without her, but “they would have to leave empty-handed.”   

Indeed police, including the FBI, have not been able to find Zhang’s body, or any evidence that could link Christensen to any of the 12 other alleged victims that he boasted of in the recording. That latter subject caused some objection by the defense team early in the day’s proceeding.

In the 9:00 a.m. hour, as Friday’s court session started, the federal public defenders representing Christensen asked the judge to instruct the jury to exclude the notion that there were 12 other murder victims. Judge Jim Shadid at that time asked, “what about Agent Huckstadt’s testimony coming up later today?” That information was expected to be part of his testimony, and it was. Prosecutors and Christensen’s public defenders went back-and-forth on that subject. The wrangling concluded with the judge suggesting that he could offer final instructions to the jury, telling them to excluding the idea of any other crimes committed in their deliberations.  

Judge Shadid has ruled that most evidence presented in the Christensen trial would be posted on the U.S. Court for the Central District of Illinois website. Evidence has already been posted and is available at this link.

The trial of Brendt Christensen is scheduled to resume Monday morning at 9 AM, at the federal courthouse in Peoria. Prosecution testimony is expected to continue.