CHICAGO (CBS) — Hours of FBI interviews, dozens of pictures and videos; that’s what jurors are sifting through in the murder trial for a former University of Illinois student accused of kidnapping and killing Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang.
Not just the jurors, but Zhang’s father, brother, and boyfriend were glued to the screens showing photo and video evidence to the court room on Friday, the second day of testimony in the trial of Brendt Christensen, who could face the death penalty if convicted.
Christensen sat mostly expressionless as prosecutors played an FBI interview of him from a week after Zhang went missing.
He told investigators his wife was out of town visiting her boyfriend on the day Zhang disappeared, June 9, 2017, so he went for a drive, and happened upon Zhang near campus. She appeared confused, and had just missed a bus.
“I was lonely and decided to go for a drive,” he said.
A security camera shows Zhang getting into a black Saturn Astra.
“I wasn’t doing anything else anyways,” Christensen told the FBI. “I asked her if she needed a ride.”
He told investigators he didn’t know if the girl was Zhang, because many Asian people look the same to him.
In the interview, Christensen said he didn’t understand her directions, and let her out of the car after she started to “freak out.”
Christensen told the FBI their questions raised concerns for himself, his wife, his girlfriend, “and obviously the girl missing.”
He also told the agents he cleaned his car after they first contacted him, and nicked his finger in the process, causing blood to get in the car. But the FBI says they never found any blood inside.
Prosecutors also played a security video from a Walmart, showing Christensen buying Drano and cleaning wipes just days after Zhang went missing.
“Something in my apartment was smelling,” Christensen said in the FBI interview. “So I did get some Drano and baking soda.”
He eventually claimed it was due to a clogged sink.
Prosecutors have not said what they believe he used the items for.
They also say he bought a six foot duffel bag on Amazon shortly before the kidnapping.
He told investigators he only bought the bag to carry a car tower he wanted to give his girlfriend as a gift and he doesn’t know where it went.
“I assume it was stolen,” he said. “It was a freaking nice duffel bag. Relatively new.”
The FBI also seized computers and phones from Christensen’s apartment in Champaign.
His wife told investigators his favorite book was “American Psycho,” about a businessman who is also a serial killer.
For the second straight day, Christensen’s defense team called for a mistrial Friday, stating there is no evidence to support an earlier claim from prosecutors that Christensen might have killed 12 other people.
The judge denied the mistrial request, stating that prosecutors are not trying to convince the jury to decide what that’s true. Christensen is only facing charges for the kidnapping and death of Yingying Zhang.
Prosecutors admitted Friday the only evidence they have that he killed others is a surveillance recording of him saying he did.
At one point while reentering the courtroom, Christensen smiled at a man watching the trial who whispered the words “I love you buddy.”
Christensen responded “I love you too.”
He was mostly expressionless as prosecutors played their evidence and interview videos.
Zhang’s family was glued to the screen, some of them listening in with the help of a translator and ear pieces.
Sources said Zhang’s mother has decided to watch the trial through a video feed in the courthouse rather than sit in the same room as Zhang’s alleged killer.
They are hoping to discover where Zhang’s remains are so they can bring her home to China for a burial.
During opening statements, Christensen’s defense team admitted he killed Zhang, apparently setting the stage for them to focus on convincing the jury to spare him from the death penalty if they convict him of murder.