'We were going to arrest Brendt': Authorities detail investigation into accused kidnapper

'We were going to arrest Brendt': Authorities detail investigation into accused kidnapper

URBANA — When visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang was last seen getting into Brendt Christensen's car on June 9, 2017, his wife was at a hotel in Wisconsin, an FBI agent testified Monday.

Before Michelle Christensen left for the weekend, she had filled up their black Saturn Astra with a full tank of gas, agent Katherine Tenaglia said at a pretrial hearing at the federal courthouse in Urbana.

So Michelle Christensen was "shocked" when she returned to find a half-tank had already been used, given that her husband usually doesn't leave the apartment or travel that far outside of Champaign, Tenaglia said while recalling a conversation with Michelle Christensen.

Christensen's wife was further suspicious that the Astra had been taken to a car wash, given that the couple normally never does that, Tenaglia testified.

Christensen has been charged with kidnapping and killing Ms. Zhang and faces the death penalty at his trial, scheduled to begin in April in Peoria.

Christensen, his attorneys and prosecutors met all day Monday to hear testimony from six FBI agents and a University of Illinois Police Department detective.

Christensen's attorneys are trying to suppress evidence, including electronic devices taken from the couple's apartment, arguing that his wife did not validly give consent to FBI agents to search it.

'Hoping she was still alive'

In motions, Christensen's lawyers have argued that FBI agents used a "deliberate show of force" late at night to separate Christensen from his wife and obtain consent from her to search the apartment in the 2500 block of West Springfield Avenue.

Tenaglia and five other FBI agents presented a different picture in their testimony Monday, describing a relatively calm scene where Christensen consented to an interview and his wife acted cooperatively.

A group of about seven agents went to the Christensens' apartment late on June 14 to execute a search warrant for the Christensens' car after UI police detectives spotted a crack in the hubcap while reviewing surveillance footage that showed Ms. Zhang entering a Saturn Astra.

The agents said they felt a sense of urgency given Ms. Zhang's disappearance, and the warrant allowed them to execute it at any time.

We were "hoping she was still alive," agent Anthony Manganaro said.

The longer the investigation lasted, agents believed, the "less likely that the missing person will be found alive," he added.

When agents arrived at the apartment around 11:45 p.m., one of them called Christensen's phone. When he didn't pick up, agents knocked on his door, they testified Monday.

Christensen initially cracked open the door. After agent Mark Hill said he had a warrant for the car, the door was opened fully, according to Monday's testimony.

Christensen was in his underwear when he greeted agents, while his wife was naked a few feet behind him. She initially declined to get dressed, the agents said, eventually putting on a robe.

When Christensen asked her whether he should request a lawyer, she said he should go with the agents to be interviewed, the agents said.

FBI: Voluntary testimony

In motions, Christensen's lawyers have said that by asking whether he should have a lawyer, their client asserted his rights to counsel and any questioning of him should have ceased.

While lawyers didn't get to their legal arguments Monday, prosecutors and FBI agents have portrayed Christensen's testimony that night as clearly voluntary, along with subsequent interactions with him that he initiated.

After Christensen left, his wife handed over the keys to the car and agreed to talk. Tenaglia and agent Andrew Huckstadt stayed to interview her and said she was cooperative, doing most of the talking for about two hours and sharing very private information, including about their sex lives, their open marriage and her husband's girlfriend.

Huckstadt said Michelle Christensen wasn't read Miranda rights because she wasn't considered a suspect, adding that she never asked to stop the interview and allowed agents to search the apartment and take electronics.

She assisted in the search, Huckstadt said, at one point mentioning that her husband's favorite book, "American Psycho," wasn't in the apartment.

UI police obtained a warrant later that day to search the electronics.

'I know you picked her up'

Meanwhile, Christensen was being interviewed by an FBI agent and a UI police officer at a Champaign field office.

Part of a video recording of that interview was played Monday in court. It included the segment in which Christensen allegedly changed his story about where he was when Ms. Zhang was last seen.

Instead of saying he was sleeping or playing video games, as FBI agents allege he initially did, Christensen said he picked up Ms. Zhang and dropped her off a few blocks away.

In the video, an FBI agent and a UI police officer are shown questioning Christensen after he signed a waiver form.

He was told investigators knew he wasn't at his apartment because his car was seen on surveillance footage picking up Ms. Zhang.

"I know you picked her up," the UI police officer says in the video, before asking where Christensen dropped her off.

At that point, Christensen says in the video that he picked up a girl with very broken English who looked distressed, but at some point she "freaked out," and he dropped her off in a residential area.

Christensen eventually asked for a lawyer, Manganaro testified Monday. At that point, the agent said, he believed they'd found Ms. Zhang's abductor.

Christensen was arrested that night, though not formally charged, for lying to an FBI agent. He was taken to the Ford County Jail and later released and taken to a Rantoul hotel.

The June 17 drive-along

While her husband was in jail, Michelle Christensen texted Tenaglia, asking the agent if a restraining order could be put on him, according to texts shown in court Monday.

After he was released, Michelle Christensen gave her husband Tenaglia's phone number, which he called in an effort to clear his name.

He met with agents June 17 at the UI police station, where they talked about where he dropped off Ms. Zhang and drove along with him to try to refresh his memory, agent Mike Carter said.

The drive-along didn't help, Carter said.

FBI agents also got in touch with Christensen's girlfriend, who eventually became a confidential informant.

Huckstadt said the girlfriend was "extremely cooperative" during their first meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes. She eventually agreed to wear a wire, saying if Christensen was innocent, the recordings would help prove that, and if he was guilty, they'd help catch someone who'd done a horrible thing, Huckstadt said.

$7,000 informant payment

On June 29, a campus vigil was held to raise awareness for the search for Ms. Zhang.

Christensen asked his girlfriend to attend, Huckstadt said, but she said that would be in bad taste. But she was in a dominant-submissive relationship with him, and as the submissive partner, she felt she had no choice but to join him.

A picture taken at that event by News-Gazette photographer Holly Hart, shown below, showed them among those in attendance:

During the vigil, she emailed Huckstadt to let him know she thought she might have recorded something substantial, Huckstadt said.

In the wire recordings, prosecutors have alleged Christensen explained the "characteristics of an ideal victim" and picked out other potential victims while attending the vigil.

He is allegedly heard on another recording describing how he kidnapped Ms. Zhang and how she fought and resisted when she was brought to his apartment.

Christensen's lawyers tried to paint his girlfriend as unable to validly consent because of her mental health and other issues.

Last year, she received $7,000 for being an informant, Huckstadt said during questioning by Assistant Federal Public Defender Elisabeth Pollock.

In several of her text messages read by Pollock, Christensen's girlfriend talked about being "not OK," "falling apart" and "barely hanging on."

Prosecutors had asked to quash testimony from the informant, but Christensen's girlfriend hasn't been subpoenaed to testify, so the motion was discarded as moot.

Wife set to testify today

By June 30, Tenaglia said Michelle Christensen was texting her less frequently but expressed frustration that she couldn't get her computer back.

So Tenaglia told her she could pick up her property with her husband.

But that wasn't the real reason, Tenaglia said.

"We were going to arrest Brendt," she said.

He was arrested that Friday, his birthday, for allegedly kidnapping Ms. Zhang. The charge was later upgraded to kidnapping resulting in Ms. Zhang's death, along with lying to the FBI.

When pretrial hearings continue today, Michelle Christensen is expected to testify.

Judge James Shadid also addressed Monday an emergency motion by Christensen's lawyers, who said the FBI searched their client's jail cell when he was in court Friday in Peoria.

Prosecutors said agents went to the Livingston County Jail to interview members of Christensen's cell block, doing it purposefully when their client wasn't there to avoid questioning him when attorneys weren't present.

Prosecutors agreed to not have FBI agents enter his cell but also questioned whether agents actually did so.

Shadid said he would issue an order to preserve video footage of Christensen's cell.

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