Call it a giant game of pretend.
Accused murderer Brendt Christensen was pretending to be truthful about the June 9, 2017, disappearance of a visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois. His two interviewers — FBI agent Anthony Manganaro and UI police Detective Eric Stiverson — pretended to believe him — at least for a while.
As everyone now knows, Christensen kidnapped and killed UI visiting scholar Yingying Zhang that day. His lawyers acknowledged Christensen's guilt during their opening statement at Christensen's ongoing trial at the federal courthouse in Peoria. But Christensen — at least in his own mind — was still in the clear on June 17, 2017, when he sat for an interview at the local FBI office.
Dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, Christensen initially appeared calm as he made small talk with Stiverson at the beginning of the 67-minute videotaped interview.
"We've just got a lot of questions to ask," Stiverson said.
"Yeah," Christensen replied.
"We want to get this resolved, so everyone can move on with their lives," said Stiverson.
There was more going on than Christensen knew as he sat down to talk. Linked to the abduction because a car like the one he owned — a black Saturn Astra — was seen picking up Ms. Zhang at an MTD bus stop on campus, Christensen had earlier talked briefly to the FBI and allowed agents to search his car.
Now, authorities said they had some follow-up inquiries, and they emphasized that the conversation was strictly voluntary.
"So anytime you're done, we'll drive you home. It's the end of it," Manganaro said.
"I'm willing to answer questions, some questions," Christensen replied.
Manganaro started out sheepishly as the post-midnight interview began: "I'm going to apologize ahead of time" for asking some of the same questions Christensen already had answered in his previous interview.
"We've been kind of running all over the state," Manganaro said.
Thus began an exchange that was lengthy and polite. And while it was low-key, it grew increasingly tense.
"Do you have any questions for me?" Manganaro asked.
"Why am I under suspicion? Is it my car?" Christensen asked.The officers explained that they were trying to find Ms. Zhang and running down leads. They asked Christensen how long he had been at the UI, about his studies and whereabouts on the day Ms. Zhang disappeared.
Christensen answered some questions falsely while volunteering irrelevant information.
"I had a phone interview (for a job) on Thursday," he said, but on Friday he played video games "literally all day" or napped.
"You didn't go cruising campus or anything?" Stiverson asked, posing a question whose correct answer he knew.
"I did on Saturday," Christensen lied.
By this time in the investigation — about a week after Ms. Zhang disappeared — authorities had compiled surveillance-camera video showing Christensen driving his car all over campus before stopping to pick up Ms. Zhang.
Twenty-four minutes into the conversation, Stiverson turned up the temperature: "You know we didn't bring you all the way up here to talk about video games or what you had for lunch that day. Why do you think we brought you here?"
"Because the car I own was seen picking up a girl that's missing," Christensen replied, inadvertently conceding his questioners' point.
That story about playing video games, "We know that's not true, correct?" Stiverson said.
"Why would I lie?" Christensen responded.
Authorities used a variety of techniques to elicit information about Ms. Zhang.
They tugged on Christensen's heartstrings.
"We're trying to find that girl," said Manganaro. "We need to find her, and we're asking for help."
They hit him with evidence from the video.
"I've got her getting into your car," said Stiverson.
"I don't know what to say. I'm sorry," said Christensen.
Finally, Stiverson outlined Christensen's campus driving tour, describing the route he took — block by block — until he saw Ms. Zhang on Goodwin Avenue by the bus stop.
"Then, you see her standing on that corner by that shade tree, didn't you? That's when you first saw her," said Stiverson.
"I've seen the video. But I didn't see me," Christensen replied.
Come on, the officers persist. Christensen was on tape. Why deny the obvious?
"Are you afraid to tell us you gave her a ride, maybe wanted to make a couple bucks as an Uber driver? ... I know you picked her up. I saw you," Stiverson said.
The interrogators had offered Christensen an innocent explanation that, after thinking about for 30 seconds of uncomfortable silence, he took.
Yes, he had picked up an Asian woman. She was very upset, speaking in broken English and needed a ride that Christensen provided. He said he thought he had picked up the girl on Saturday, but now realized it was Friday.
"I mixed up the day," he explained.
Authorities then asked Christensen where he had driven Ms. Zhang, where he dropped her off, what she was wearing, the color of her phone, what his intentions were when he picked her up.
Sitting with his arms folded and sometimes speaking in sentence fragments, Christensen tried to fend off the inquiries.
Stiverson noted that Christensen was taking his time before answering and being less than honest.
"It seems you're trying to think about three steps ahead, where I'm going with (my) questions," he said.
Then they changed approaches, sympathetically discussing Christensen's faltering marriage and his wife's decision to go to Wisconsin the weekend of June 9 with another man.
"How did that make you feel?" they asked.
"Lonely," Christensen replied.
"That's OK. Those are normal human feelings," the officers replied. "Is that why you were driving all over campus pretty much all day Friday?"
Christensen insisted he let Ms. Zhang out of his car when she became upset after he took a wrong turn. He said she was in his car "less than five minutes."
But the officers suggested Christensen wasn't being truthful.
"My theory is she didn't get out of the car," said Manganaro. "I'd like you to be more forthcoming with me."
"We will find her. When we find her is up to you because you know and we know she didn't just get out of your car," said Stiverson.
"She got out of my car. She got out of my car," Christensen said in a barely audible whisper.
Help us find Ms. Zhang, the officers pleaded.
"You can do that. You can do that right now," they said.
Christensen, however, was unmoved.
"I think I've told you" what happened, he replied.
Shortly after that exchange, Christensen terminated the interview.
About a week later, after Christensen told a friend recording the conversation that he had killed Ms. Zhang, the former physics doctoral student was arrested.
On Monday, lawyers will present final arguments in the guilt phase of the case. That will be followed by a sentencing hearing in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.