PEORIA — After eight days of testimony from 35 witnesses, both the prosecution and the defense rested their cases Friday in the trial of Brendt Christensen.
They'll make their closing arguments Monday, when prosecutors will try to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence shows Christensen kidnapped and killed Yingying Zhang, a University of Illinois visiting scholar from China.
Christensen's lawyers admitted in their opening statement that their client killed Ms. Zhang and appear focused on avoiding a death sentence.
Christensen himself declined to take the stand Friday, speaking for the first time only to briefly answer questions from U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid confirming the decision.
"That's correct," Christensen said.
Throughout the trial, he's been attentive, sitting with his lawyers and usually wearing a blue button-down shirt.
Before the trial resumed Friday, Shadid said he met privately that morning with Christensen's lawyers — without Christensen present — about a "security issue brought to my attention." He did not elaborate.
Christensen hasn't done much throughout the trial besides smiling when he sees his dad, chatting with his lawyers and eating a quick snack during breaks.
But when his former wife, Michelle Zortman, walked in Friday to testify for the defense, he couldn't take his eyes off her.
It was in stark contrast to the two previous days, when he tried to avoid looking at his ex-girlfriend, who secretly recorded their conversations for the FBI and testified for about seven hours.
Asked whether she was aware Ms. Zhang got in Christensen's car, Zortman said, "I'm aware he's responsible for her death."
But she said she continues to call Christensen, despite their divorce, because "he was the biggest person in my life for most of a decade."
"It's difficult to end ties like that," Zortman said.
She described how they went to high school together in Wisconsin and worked at Kmart together as cashiers.
They started dating in 2008, the same year Christensen had a horrible accident while working for a roofing company, when a board he was standing on broke and he fell, breaking his wrists and elbows.
His doctor called it the "Super Bowl of wrist injuries," Zortman said.
In 2009, they moved to Madison so Christensen could attend the University of Wisconsin.
She said they had no social life, instead spending almost all their time together, playing video games and watching TV.
Zortman said she did virtually all the cooking.
"He made a steak once in Stevens Point," Wis., she said.
Zortman could recall just one night where they didn't sleep together because he had friends over.
They were married in 2011 by a lawyer in a hotel, with their parents and four friends present. She remembered wearing a green sweater and jeans.
In 2013, they moved to Champaign so Christensen could pursue his doctorate in physics at the University of Illinois.
By 2016, she said, they were having some marital problems, as Christensen started drinking excessively during the school year.
She would ask him to stop, which he would for a little bit, but then continue.
"It made me angry," Zortman said.
One night in December 2016, Christensen got very drunk and said something that disturbed Zortman.
After this, their marriage was "never the same," Zortman said.
This appears to be referring to when he told his wife about his interest in serial killers, which Christensen described to an intern at the University of Illinois Counseling Center.
After that conversation, he said she gave him an ultimatum to stop drinking, and in the spring of 2017, Zortman said his drinking was getting worse.
One of her co-workers suggested she open their marriage so he could date her, and Zortman brought this up to Christensen.
"After a few days, he agreed to it," she said.
In March, she said she told Christensen she was contemplating a divorce.
"I felt our marriage had hit a dead end," she said.
She said Christensen got "very emotional. He was crying," the first time she'd seen him do so.
"I thought it was genuine," Zortman said, and he "convinced me to stay."
In late March or early April, Zortman said she planned a trip to the Wisconsin Dells with her new boyfriend for early June.
"It didn't seem to bother him," she said.
But a few days before she left, Zortman said her husband was upset.
Things seemed off
She left for the trip early Friday morning, June 9, 2017, and returned around 5 p.m. Sunday.
That weekend, Christensen would kidnap and kill Ms. Zhang.
He texted Zortman at 11:34 a.m. that Friday.
She sent four texts throughout the day, and he didn't respond until 3:30 p.m., 1 hour, 26 minutes after he kidnapped Ms. Zhang.
When Zortman returned from her trip, her apartment looked "the same way it was when I left," Zortman said.
Nothing smelled strange, she said.
But a few things were off.
Christensen showed her a bloodstain on their mattress and claimed it was from a nose bleed.
Asked on cross-examination if this explanation made sense, Zortman said, "I've never had a nose bleed."
And when she used her Saturn Astra again, she noticed half a tank of gas had been used.
Christensen also cleaned the Astra, which she said he never did.
And the day after she returned, she said she saw him carry out a large duffel bag.
But "it didn't look like there was anything in it," Zortman said, though she said she didn't get a good look.
When the FBI showed up late June 14 at their apartment while they were sleeping and asked to search their apartment, Zortman said she felt like she had no choice but to comply, signing a consent form that indicated she had a right to refuse.
During the investigation, she said she wasn't afraid of Christensen, but "I was leery."
So she slept in a separate room, putting something on the door that would make noise if he tried to enter.
She said she thought about getting a restraining order, but didn't.
On June 29, she picked up Christensen and his girlfriend, Terra Bullis, after they attended a campus vigil for Ms. Zhang.
After the vigil, he told Bullis in gruesome detail how he killed Ms. Zhang, and when he got in her car, Zortman said she quickly realized Christensen was drunk.
The next day, an FBI agent told Zortman she could pick up her seized property with her husband, the agent testified in a pretrial hearing.
Instead, they arrested Christensen on his 28th birthday.
As she was testifying, Zortman said she was not a fan of doing so, as she's a very private person.
Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock asked her if she wished she were not here.
"Very much," Zortman said.
Visit with counselor
Besides having Zortman testify, the defense also played the entire video of Christensen talking about serial killers with an intern at the University of Illinois Counseling Center three months before he killed Ms. Zhang.
Christensen told the intern he went there because his wife wanted him to and because he had been abusing the painkiller Vicodin and alcohol for years.
He said that after his roofing accident, he had a continuous supply of Vicodin for two or three months.
But he said alcohol was his biggest issue.
"Whenever I drink, it's a lot," he said, estimating he would have 15-20 drinks in a sitting.
He said he felt depressed because he failed to get his doctorate in physics and realized he was "probably not a genius."
He eventually opened up about his fascination with serial killers, particularly Ted Bundy.
"I've always been interested in the bad guys," he said.
Asked how far along his homicidal thoughts had progressed, he said, "I was pretty far along" and bought "a few things," but realized it wasn't worth it.
He said he wasn't targeting specific people, but "probably a type."
He concluded that it wouldn't be worth the risk, that "I wouldn't last in prison," and that he wouldn't want to live with the guilt.
After both sides rested their case, the jury was dismissed until Monday morning's closing arguments.
But the lawyers stuck around with the judge, continuing to debate specific wording of the instructions the jury will receive to guide them in their deliberations.
In particular, Christensen's lawyers want the jury to be instructed to only consider Christensen's claim of 13 victims in relation to his state of mind.
The defense has made three motions for mistrial about the claim, which Christensen made to his girlfriend while she was wearing a wire, because they say the prosecution has suggested the claim could be true.
Shadid has denied each motion and said both sides had been clear that there is no corroboration to support the claim.
And he said Friday it appeared to be a "strategic decision" by the defense to bring up the claim in the guilt phase.
Shadid said he had previously ruled the claim shouldn't be brought up until the sentencing phase, but the defense wanted to get it in early for strategic reasons.
Since the prosecution would normally be prohibited from bringing up unproven crimes, the defense would have had to bring it up, but Shadid said the defense then said it would be OK if the prosecution brought it up.
Both sides mentioned the claim in their opening statements.
The defense has used the claim to argue what he said on the wire recording at the vigil can't be trusted, such as the details of how he killed Ms. Zhang, as he was drinking and bragging to his girlfriend.
This appears to be an attempt to save Christensen's life, as the prosecution will try to prove in the sentencing phase that Christensen tortured or seriously physically abused Ms. Zhang.