Man laughed while describing how he killed Chinese scholar, his ex-girlfriend testifies
PEORIA, Ill. — Sitting on a bench at a vigil for the missing Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang in 2017, Brendt Christensen grabbed his girlfriend Terra Bullis’ phone and pulled up the Notepad function.
One at a time, he typed four lines, deleting them after showing them to Bullis.
“It was me.”
“She was number 13.”
“She is gone.”
That night, when he saw the crowd gathering for the vigil, he told Bullis “they’re here for me.”
Bullis wore a wire for the FBI to record a total of nine conversations with Christensen, including a lengthy one that same evening in which Christensen told her in graphic detail how he killed Zhang.
Christensen was “excited” and boastful” as he recounted killing Zhang, who he said was his 13th victim, Bullis testified Thursday during her former boyfriend’s trial for the kidnapping and murder of Zhang, a scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“They have the bat I hit her in the head with,” Christensen told Bullis, referring to the FBI.
Christensen said he first tried to choke Zhang to death. “I couldn’t believe she was still alive,” he said.
He carried her to the bathtub, he said. “I got the bat and hit her on the head as hard as I could and it broke her head open,” Christensen said.
He then stabbed her in the neck, and “chopped her head off,” he said, laughing.
The conversation took place on June 29, 2017, about three weeks after the June 9 disappearance of Zhang, as authorities were zeroing in on Christensen as a suspect.
At one point on the recording that was played in court, Bullis’ heartbeat is audible, picked up by the recording device she had hidden within her clothes.
Bullis conveyed interest in what Christensen was saying, even as he expressed admiration for serial killer Ted Bundy, in an effort to keep the conversation going. But she was “devastated,” she said.
“Do you think you might be the next successful serial killer?” Bullis asked Christensen.
“I already am,” he replied on the recording.
Christensen was smiling a lot and appeared happy at the somber vigil, Bullis said.
Despite his boasts, FBI agents have testified that no evidence has been found to link any other victims to Christensen. Christensen’s defense attorneys admitted on the first day of the trial that Christensen killed Zhang, but have insisted he wasn’t being truthful when he said he’d killed other people.
Christensen is facing the death penalty, which was abolished in Illinois state courts, but is still an avenue federal prosecutors can pursue.
Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017, getting into a black Saturn Astra in the University of Illinois area in Champaign-Urbana.
Thursday was Bullis’ second day testifying in the federal trial in Peoria. Jurors listened to the recordings she made for the FBI through headphones.
During one recorded conversation, Christensen told Bullis that Zhang’s family, who had traveled to the United States from China in the wake of her disappearance, would leave “empty-handed.”
“No one will ever know where she is,” Christensen said.
Days earlier, Christensen had told Bullis in a text message he picked up Zhang, but denied wrongdoing.
Christensen was drinking alcohol from a water bottle while the two attended the vigil for Zhang, but Bullis said Christensen didn’t appear to be drunk. She told Christensen in the recorded conversation that she didn’t think he would harm her or his wife, Michelle, with whom he was in an open relationship. Christensen told Bullis she was “safe.”
Bullis said she wouldn’t be safe if she told anyone about their conversation.
“That’s true,” Christensen said.
Christensen, 29, was arrested the day after that conversation. He called Bullis multiple times after his arrest, she said in court Thursday.
Bullis became emotional several times during her many hours of testimony Thursday, at times wiping her eyes. She had left her job in the wake of Zhang’s disappearance in part because after photos were made public of her with Christensen, she couldn’t continue working in a public setting, she said.
She later sought mental health services, for which she sought financial assistance from the FBI. She has received between $7,000 and $8,000 in assistance from the FBI, largely through reimbursements, she said Thursday.
During a July 2, 2017, recorded phone call between Christensen, who was in jail, and his wife, he asked her to reach out to Bullis.
“Please text her or call her and tell her not to say anything to anyone except our lawyers,” Christensen said, adding “tell her I’m innocent and everything is going to be OK.”
In his cross-examination of Bullis, assistant federal defender Robert Tucker highlighted Christensen’s “severe” issues with alcohol, the emotional and psychiatric issues Bullis was dealing with, and her alternative sex life with Christensen.
Bullis had said she was struggling at the time, taking multiple medications and suffering from PTSD from prior trauma.
Students comfort each other outside of the U.S. Courthouse on July 3, 2017 in Urbana, Ill., before the bond hearing for Brendt Christensen, who allegedly kidnapped visiting scholar Yingying Zhang.