PEORIA — Brendt Christensen thought he could trust his ex-girlfriend.
It took him a couple weeks to gradually open up, but at a campus vigil to raise awareness for visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, Terra Bullis said he took her iPhone and looked through her calls and texts.
According to Bullis, he then opened the Notes app, wrote four lines and deleted them:
— It was me.
— She was No. 13.
— She is gone.
For the previous couple weeks, he'd hinted at it, suggested it was possible, talked about it hypothetically. But this was the first time he directly admitted he killed Ms. Zhang.
"I trust you," he said later that evening after gruesomely describing how he killed Ms. Zhang. "You're the only person I've ever told."
He was arrested the next day, and even once he was in jail, he thought she was still on his side.
Three days in, he called his wife and told her to "please text or call her to not say anything to anyone but our lawyers."
He had tried to call her three times from the Macon County Jail but hadn't gotten a response.
"You need to talk to her," he said. "I'm innocent."
His wife said she had texted Bullis but received no response.
"I guess she's busy," he said. "I hope she's OK."
He still thought he could trust her.
"I know she wouldn't abandon me," he said. "Tell her that I'm thinking about her and miss her."
'I was afraid of him'
He didn't realize that his girlfriend had been cooperating with the FBI for two weeks leading up to his arrest, agreeing to wear a wire the day after the FBI first reached out to her.
But he never caught on, despite her feeling terrified.
"I was afraid of him," Bullis said Thursday, continuing her hours-long testimony from the prior day.
At one point after the vigil, she asked him if she would be safe.
"You're safe, and I mean that," he said.
But not if she talked, Bullis asked.
"That's true," Christensen said.
While testifying, Bullis said, "He just told me that because of what I was doing, I was not safe."
In court Thursday, she described how two days before the vigil, Christensen almost admitted he killed Ms. Zhang.
He had already told her he had picked up Ms. Zhang on June 9, 2017, but continued to insist he let her out a few blocks away.
"I was the last person who saw her," Christensen said, worried he'd become the "scapegoat" of the investigation because "it's political."
Bullis asked him why he didn't stop by her house on June 9.
Christensen thought she was busy, but Bullis told him she wasn't until that evening.
"Yeah you were," Christensen insisted, later telling her, "Don't think anything of it."
'Now you know pretty much everything'
Bullis complained to him that she felt like she knew nothing about what's going on.
"Now you know pretty much everything," he said. Plus, "nothing you can tell them is actually going to help me or you or Michelle," his now-former wife, who is expected to testify Friday for the defense.
Bullis asked Christensen if he still had fantasies about serial killers.
"It must be kind of easy to do," she suggested.
"Maybe," he said.
He said it would be easy to kill a prostitute because "those kind of people aren't missed."
This was part of the reason he was fascinated with Ted Bundy, Christensen said, because he "targeted college women."
During this conversation, Christensen's eyes got a little bit wider and he spoke a little faster, according to Bullis.
She was upset because "this is not something I can be excited about. It was difficult to hear," Bullis said. "I didn't want it to continue, but I felt an obligation ethically to allow it to continue."
It continued, with Christensen saying he still felt paranoid that the FBI was listening to him or bugging his apartment.
"That's weird," Bullis said, testifying Thursday that she was "incredibly nervous" when he said this.
But she told him, "If you want to talk, know that I'm around."
"The unfortunate thing is that the way people get caught is, they tell someone," Christensen said.
Bullis said he wouldn't get caught.
"Even if I did do it," Christensen said, he wouldn't say anything.
He said he wanted to trust Bullis completely but said if he told her what he did, she could be considered an accomplice and he expected her to crack under pressure.
"People aren't rational when confronted with a decision like that," he said.
'They're here for me'
Two days later, Christensen ordered Bullis to join him at the campus vigil.
She asked him why he wanted to go.
"I want to go because ... idk," he responded in a text, using shorthand for "I don't know."
Bullis was the submissive in their dominant-submissive relationship, but said this was not the type of order she typically expected from him. Usually, she'd be told to clean or exercise or do certain things in bed.
"This was none of that," Bullis said.
Christensen asked her to meet him at the top of the Krannert Center steps.
Before she did, she stopped at the FBI to pick up her recording device and then took a different bus than usual to avoid running into Christensen on the way.
When she got there, Bullis said she didn't start recording right away because she was concerned about battery life.
Christensen showed Bullis a collar for her to wear.
"I told him it would be inappropriate" in public and at a somber vigil, Bullis said. "He seemed to be smiling a lot and happy."
She didn't end up wearing the collar.
Christensen also had a Nalgene water bottle with some rum in it.
"They're here for me," he told her, according to Bullis.
Realizing she should turn her recorder on, she went to the bathroom to do so.
Someone was handing out pamphlets at the vigil, which the recording picked up Christensen calling "souvenirs."
He then took her left hand and with his fingertips traced something on her skin, Bullis said.
"He was writing the number 13," Bullis said, referring to the number of people he's claimed to kill and which the FBI hasn't been able to corroborate.
She went to the bathroom to turn off the recorder during the concert, sent two emails to the FBI and deleted them.
When she returned, she met Christensen on a bench and he allegedly wrote the four lines admitting he killed Ms. Zhang.
During the concert, they continued to drink, which Bullis said she found "incredibly disrespectful for the missing person and all the people there."
At the end of the concert, Christensen clapped oddly, Bullis said, with long staccato claps instead of normal, quick ones.
He also sat during a standing ovation, she said, and during the concert, he pointed at someone in front of them and "explained that she would be a good target."
After the concert, Bullis said she went to the bathroom and contacted the FBI. She also contacted one of her housemates to tell him to not let Christensen in their house.
"I was afraid of him," Bullis said.
'I've just wanted to talk about this with someone so much'
They then walked west toward his home, stopping by Subway so Bullis could go to the bathroom and turn on her recorder.
On the way home, Christensen continued to open up, describing in graphic detail how he choked Ms. Zhang for 10 minutes, hit her in the head with a baseball bat, stabbed her in the neck with a knife and chopped her head off.
While he told her this, Bullis said he was speaking more loudly and quickly, with wide eyes.
He "just seemed very excited," Bullis said.
When Christensen told her that Ms. Zhang would be his legacy, Bullis said he laughed a little bit.
"I've just wanted to talk about this with someone so much," Christensen told her at one point.
While walking, they tried to eat at Potbelly Sandwich Shop on Green Street, but it had already closed for the day, and Christensen continued to explain how he killed Ms. Zhang.
He bragged about being a good serial killer and compared himself to Bundy.
"He was standing very tall when he was walking and seemed like he was rather proud or boastful," Bullis said.
When he told her no one would find Ms. Zhang, Bullis described his demeanor as "matter of fact" and "clinical."
"I was scared," she said.
Eventually, Christensen's wife picked them up.
She accused him of being drunk, which Bullis confirmed.
When Bullis got home, she said she went inside and called the FBI.
Asked Thursday how she felt at this point, Bullis responded, "Devastated."
The next day, Christensen was arrested, and photos and video of him and Bullis at the vigil soon surfaced.
Bullis said she was no longer able to "work in a public environment" and sought mental-health treatment.
She asked for financial help from the FBI and said she received about $7,000 to $8,000.
After more than five hours of testifying, which she described as terrifying, Bullis was asked why she did so.
"Because it's necessary," she said.
'I didn't want to be having any of those conversations'
After a lunch break, Bullis was cross-examined for another two hours, answering questions from defense attorney Robert Tucker about her sexual kinks and motives.
He seemed to be getting at two points: that she had introduced Christensen to dominant-submissive relationships, and that during the campus vigil, she must have been encouraging him to get drunk and say things that would implicate him.
Christensen's lawyers have already admitted he killed Ms. Zhang but are focused on saving him from the death penalty.
They're trying to show he didn't torture or seriously physically abuse Ms. Zhang, as the prosecution is trying to prove during the sentencing phase. To do so, the defense is trying to discredit what he said on the recording by arguing that he was drunk and bragging during the campus vigil.
The prosecution will also be trying to prove that Ms. Zhang's death had "substantial planning and premeditation," which the defense seems to be arguing against by describing Christensen as someone who was in a downward spiral and happened to be introduced to dominant-submissive relationships.
Bullis agreed that she introduced him to BDSM, the fetish social network FetLife and flogging, showing him a demonstration video about how to do a certain style of flogging.
"I introduced him to the ideas. He was not part of the community," she said.
But she said, "I did not aim to teach. I was answering inquiries."
As for the campus vigil, Bullis said, "I didn't want to be having any of those conversations."
She said she drank with him, despite knowing about his problems with alcohol, because she was worried he would stop talking if she didn't.
While she told his wife that Christensen was drunk and texted him the next morning asking if he was hungover, Bullis insisted she didn't think he was drunk during the walk and said being drunk isn't a duality.
And she said some of her comments were made to continue the conversation, while others were genuine questions, as she felt conflicted and confused during the walk.
The FBI "never told me what to ask," Bullis said.
At one point during the recording, Bullis asked Christensen if the woman he picked up spoke broken English, the same way Christensen described Ms. Zhang's English to the FBI in an earlier interrogation.
Tucker asked if she asked that question on her own.
"Yes I did, sir," Bullis responded.
Tucker asked her why she sent Christensen a text around 3 a.m. the morning he kidnapped Ms. Zhang, letting him know she had had casual sex that night.
"I wanted to let him know I had someone over," Bullis said. "I wasn't aware if it would wake him up or not. I wasn't thinking about when he would see it."
When he did wake up, he responded, "No worries, bunny," his pet name for Bullis.
Throughout her testimony, Christensen avoided looking at her, mostly looking straight ahead, though occasionally glancing at her.
During breaks, Bullis waited for Christensen to be taken out of the courtroom in handcuffs first before she left the room.
'Delete the comments, too'
The prosecution wrapped up its case Thursday, though prosecutors plan to formally rest their case Friday morning after making sure they submitted all the evidence they plan to.
The defense will then make its case, which Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said could take half a day to three-quarters of a day and is expected to include the testimony of Christensen's ex-wife.
Five days after Christensen was arrested, he talked with his wife from jail, asking her to delete his Reddit account after she let him know people were trying to figure out which account was his.
"Delete the comments, too," he said on a recording played Thursday.
"There's nothing there," he said, but delete "anything dumb."
She found one comment from him on a post about Ms. Zhang's disappearance, with an update about the suspect allegedly showing Ms. Zhang a fake police badge.
"Man that's very Ted Bundy-esque ... scary," Christensen wrote on June 11, 2017.
That comment has since been deleted.