PEORIA — While Yingying Zhang's family was trying to raise awareness of her disappearance at a campus vigil, Brendt Christensen was drinking alcohol from a water bottle, cracking jokes and bragging about how gruesomely he killed her.
Even his lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock, called it a "deeply disturbing recording," which his girlfriend recorded with a body microphone while acting as a paid informant for the FBI.
"A night you'll remember," Christensen told his girlfriend in the recording, which was played for the first time Friday during the third day of his trial.
"All those people here tonight. They want her home safe. They have no idea what happened. I'm the only one," he said, starting to open up to his girlfriend before eventually describing in gruesome detail how he claimed he killed Ms. Zhang.
Less than 20 feet away, Ms. Zhang's family looked toward a TV screen set up for the audience to follow along and listened to a translation through an earpiece, hearing Christensen describe in his own words how he killed their daughter, sister and girlfriend.
As the more than hourlong recording was played, Christensen didn't appear to have much of a reaction, either looking down or at the screen ahead of him, which scrolled through a transcript of what he was saying.
Christensen hasn't shown much outward emotion throughout this whole process, hardly saying a word at his various pretrial hearings, briefly chatting with his court-appointed lawyers before proceedings begin each day and sometimes eating yogurt or a granola bar during a break.
But on Friday, his face lit up during a break when he was brought in and saw his dad standing near the railing separating the public from the court.
"Hi Dad," Christensen said.
"Hi," his dad responded.
"How's it going?" Christensen said.
"I'm good," his dad said.
"Me too," Christensen said.
"Be strong," his dad said.
After the brief conversation, he returned to his seat, and the proceedings soon resumed.
'She was valiant'
In the afternoon, FBI special agent Andrew Huckstadt described how they signed Christensen's girlfriend up to be a confidential source a week after Ms. Zhang was abducted June 9, 2017.
From June 16 to June 29, she recorded nine conversations — two phone calls and seven in person.
"The defendant was under surveillance around the clock" at this point, Huckstadt said.
Initially, the local FBI agents were conducting surveillance on their own, but eventually brought on professionals who were "more covert" and used "aerial surveillance."
After his girlfriend recorded a conversation, Huckstadt would usually immediately retrieve the body microphone, download the recording and return the microphone to her.
During the first conversation June 16, he told his girlfriend he loved her, before going to bed.
"Sweet dreams, Bunny. My kitten," he said, using her pet name.
The next day, he talked with her on her porch, as her roommates wouldn't let him in their house. Christensen told her he was "trying to clear my name" and "just trying to cooperate."
"I'm still free," he told her, before pointing out a surveillance vehicle down the road.
"It's obvious," he said, amused. "I'm not doing anything wrong. They can follow me all they want. ... We've experienced something that not many people have. It's weird."
Huckstadt said the surveillance vehicle was visible because they were concerned about the safety of his girlfriend.
Three days later, he assured her, "it's going to be OK."
But his girlfriend asked about the 6-foot duffel bag he had purchased.
He claimed it was used to transport a present for her, which broke, so he discarded the bag.
"I don't know where the duffel is," he said. "It's suspicious looking, I acknowledge. Someone might've taken it or something."
His girlfriend doubted that, saying, "People don't steal stuff around here."
Christensen knew the FBI knew about the duffel bag because his wife had talked to them.
"She told them everything about me, and that scares me," he said, but insisted, "They're searching for something that doesn't exist."
Two days before the campus vigil, Christensen told his girlfriend he was particularly concerned about the FBI announcing that his Saturn Astra had been located.
He tried to give his girlfriend an explanation for why the FBI would do that if he's not the suspect.
And he complained about not being able to retrieve items seized by the FBI in their search of his apartment, including his camera and shoes.
The next recording was made at the campus vigil.
When she started her recording, Christensen's girlfriend noted the absurdity of Christensen attending and drinking at an event for a person he was suspected of killing.
"This is kind of ridiculous," she said before meeting up with Christensen.
They chatted about alcohol, with Christensen noting that "Mike's Hard Lemonade is, like, the greatest thing of all time."
"I'm not ashamed to say that I love girly drinks," he said at the campus vigil.
When they saw how many people were there, Christensen said it was more than he expected.
"I just wanted to see how many people were here," he said. They're here "for me."
After the event, he walked toward his home with his girlfriend, and she lightly taunted him about being scared to tell her what happened to Ms. Zhang.
He apparently began bragging about previous abductions he's made.
His girlfriend joked about how she felt safe with Christensen.
"My version of safer is walking at night with a serial killer," she said.
"Yeah, that's me," Christensen said just before describing how he killed Ms. Zhang.
"She was valiant," he said, more than any of his other alleged victims. "She fought more than anyone else."
Asked when he'll have enough victims, he said, "I still wanna do it. It's, just, my legacy."
He claimed his murder of Ms. Zhang was the only one where he left evidence that leads back to him.
'They will never find her'
After he took her to his apartment, Christensen claimed he "tore her clothes off and just started doing stuff to her" but got bored and "just didn't care."
"They have the bat I hit her in the head with," he said. "I tried to choke her to death, but ... she just didn't die."
"It must've been 10 minutes with my hands, then I released her. I couldn't believe she was still alive," he said. "I carried her into my bathtub, got the bat and hit her on the head as hard as I could."
He wasn't sure if he'd killed her, "so I had a knife, and I stabbed her in the neck, and she grabbed for it."
He said that's what killed her, and then "I chopped her head off. ... That was the end of it."
Christensen marveled about being the only person who knew about this.
"I've wanted to talk about this with someone so much," he said.
He bragged that Ms. Zhang was his 13th victim, but assured his girlfriend she wouldn't be next because she was too big.
"It's about getting rid of 100 pounds versus 150 pounds," he said. "Too much ... to get rid of."
He bragged about getting "the nation's attention. I didn't want to, but I still did."
He claimed to live a "double life," like the main character of his favorite book, "American Psycho," and boasted that he is "the most successful person who has done this in the past 30 years. I really am."
As they continued walking, he sounded amused about the campus vigil.
"They thanked me for being there," he said. "It's so weird."
But he insisted he would never tell anyone where he took Ms. Zhang.
"I won't tell you where she is. I won't tell anyone," he said. "They will never find her."
Ms. Zhang's family is "going to leave empty-handed," he boasted. "No one will ever know where she is. ... She's gone forever."
'Good, bad, revered, infamous'
After the tape finished, Pollock began her cross-examination of Huckstadt, noting that Christensen's girlfriend encouraged him to keep talking, that his claim of 13 victims hasn't been corroborated despite extensive efforts to try to do so, and that Christensen was quite drunk during the vigil recording.
After his wife picked up Christensen and his girlfriend, she accused him of being drunk, which his girlfriend confirmed, according to Pollock.
And during the recording, his girlfriend noted he was slurring his words, and Christensen said he'd been drinking earlier and would "be out tonight."
The defense has already admitted Christensen killed Ms. Zhang, but is trying to spare him the death penalty. In particular, they've been trying to cast doubt on what Christensen said during the June 29 recording.
Earlier Friday, the prosecution played part of the video of Christensen talking to an intern at the University of Illinois Counseling Center three months before he killed Ms. Zhang.
In it, he explained that he had "always been interested in the bad guys" and a few months prior became fascinated with serial killers, particularly Ted Bundy.
He's "literally the worst person I've ever heard of," Christensen said.
He said his interest in serial killers started once he realized that he's "probably not a genius."
The previous fall, he received straight Fs, and Christensen eventually decided to get a master's and stop pursuing a doctorate degree in physics.
"I realized I was not going to be a great physicist," he said.
He would later text his girlfriend that, "I don't care how I am remembered, just that I am: good, bad, revered, infamous. I don't care."
One drunken night, he told his wife about his interest in serial killers, which terrified her, and she gave him an ultimatum to stop drinking.
Two days before he went to the counseling center, she said she wanted a divorce, but Christensen said he was able to keep them together by opening up their marriage.
The intern asked him how far his homicidal plans had gone.
Christensen said he'd bought some things and wasn't targeting a specific person, but "probably a type."
But he claimed, "I realized it wasn't even close to worth it" given the risks, modern technology and that he "wouldn't last in prison."
Search went on
Also Friday, the prosecution continued to detail their search for Ms. Zhang.
FBI Agent Michael Carter said they searched in abandoned properties, along railroad tracks, in drainage pipes and near bridges.
He said the search continued well into 2018, with a search along the shore line at Clinton Lake in November 2017 and another of the burn pits and wooded areas at Allerton Park in 2018.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres asked Carter if they found Ms. Zhang.
"No, we did not," Carter said.
Friday's proceedings moved a little slower than previous days, with another motion by the defense for a mistrial that was denied, some technical difficulties with the recordings and numerous objections and sidebars, where the lawyers huddle with the judge away from earshot.
The day wrapped up around 4:30, later than U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid had anticipated.
The trial will resume Monday with Pollock's cross-examination of Huckstadt.