Zhang memorial garden3

The memorial garden for Yingying Zhang outside of Campbell Hall on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.

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UPDATE, 5:50 p.m.:

PEORIA — Brendt Christensen's childhood friend Tom Mitchell took the stand Wednesday afternoon. He was born the same day as Christensen, in the same hospital.

Mitchell said they'd have birthday parties and go trick-or-treating together.

He said Christensen would be interested in the mechanics of his toys and break them. Mitchell said he'd hit Christensen, but "he never hit me back."

He said they would have sleepovers, and he observed Christensen sleepwalking and making noises in his sleep.

He said Christensen's mom was clearly lonely and an alcoholic, and seemed desperate for anyone to talk to when he would come over. He testified that his mom told him not to let Christensen's mom drive him places if she appeared drunk.

They gradually drifted apart in junior high as they had different interests and friend groups.

Next up was Christensen's best friend in high school, Andrew Kieper, who said he put $50 on Christensen's jail telephone account so he could make calls a few days after he was arrested.

He said the last time they had been in touch was at a going-away dinner in 2013 when Christensen was about to leave for the University of Illinois.

"He was on the rise," Kieper said. "I always knew he would be good at whatever he dedicated himself to."

Kieper said they were on the football and track teams together and performed a lightsaber duel in German class. He was a "goofy, fun-loving teenager," Kieper said. "Nothing outside the usual."

Kieper was Christensen's best man at his small wedding at a hotel in Madison. He said he talked with him less often after he moved to Champaign.

On July 2, 2017, his partner woke him up and told him, "You're not going to believe this. Brendt got arrested."

"I was completely and absolutely taken aback. One-hundred-percent shocked," he said. There was "never an indicator" this could've happened. He said he kept expecting it to pass and that investigators would find someone else responsible.

He said he put the money on Christensen's jail phone account "because he's my friend, and he needed me."

Christensen said he'd pay him back the $50, but Kieper told him that wasn't necessary.

During one of the calls, Christensen told Kieper he was innocent. Asked how he felt about being lied to, Kieper said, "it hurts deeply," but he still considers him a friend whom he loves.

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UPDATE, Noon:

PEORIA — On cross examination, Brendt Christensen’s father, Michael, was asked about his son calling the case political in a recorded jail call.

“If he didn’t, I probably did” say that, he said. Prosecutor James Nelson asked the father if he thinks the case is political.

“Not completely,” he said.

He said he initially believed his son could be innocent.

A few days after Brendt Christensen was arrested, his father apparently told him that if he were exonerated, he would tell Ms. Zhang’s father that he should be ashamed of himself. Christensen’s dad said he was frustrated that everyone assumed his son was guilty after he was arrested, when he could imagine situations where he wasn’t.

Christensen’s uncle, Mark, also testified.

Describing his nephew, Mark Christensen called him a “happy-go-lucky kid ... just a real nice kid.”

Asked what he thought of his crime: “It’s horrendous. It’s a travesty. I have no idea. I feel terrible for her family.”

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Original story, published 10:55 a.m.:

PEORIA — Brendt Christensen broke down crying while his father described how a death sentence would impact him during testimony Wednesday morning at his son's sentencing hearing in Peoria.

His father also cried, taking a couple breaks, and was barely able to continue.

“A death sentence, I could handle,” Michael Christensen said. “But not the actual death.”

He said he recently pictured his son about to be executed, but “I had to stop. I can’t think of that too much.”

Asked if he had anything to say to Yingying Zhang’s family, he struggled to speak, but said, “I’m sorry my son was the cause of their pain.”

Christensen was also crying at this point.

As the father left for a break, Christensen’s face was red and his lawyers had their arms around him. Another one of his lawyers walked out of the courtroom with his father after he finished and was crying while walking past Christensen.

Christensen also cried when his father described how Christensen’s wife became good friends with his younger sister.

Christensen also smiled and laughed when the defense showed a picture of him dressed as a red Power Ranger for Halloween and playing with his cat.

His dad said he still loves his son and will support him.

“Oh God, yes,” he said. “Of course. I’m his parent. I have to be here. I love him. Nothing’s going to stop that. I have no choice.”

Michael Christensen said his father was never around and an alcoholic, so he tried to be the opposite with his three kids.

He said Brendt was a smart kid in an accelerated program and participated in track and field.

He also described Christensen’s night terrors growing up, and his episode at 15 when he jumped off the second-floor porch and into a van.

He also talked about his work accident at age 19, when he fell 16 feet at a construction site and severely hurt both arms.

Reporter

Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is bzigterman@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).