Jurors listen to suspect say he killed scholar from China

Jurors in a federal death-penalty trial heard secretly recorded audio Friday in which a former University of Illinois doctoral student describes to his girlfriend how he killed a visiting scholar from China, calling the 26-year-old woman "valiant" as she tried to fight back.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette reports that the recording of Brendt Christensen was made by his girlfriend when she wore a wire for the FBI as the two attended a campus vigil on June 29, 2017, for the missing scholar, Yingying Zhang. Christensen was arrested the next day.

Prosecutors at the trial in Peoria have said Christensen posed as a police officer to lure Zhang into his car on June 9, 2017, after deciding he would kill someone that day. Her body hasn't been found.

On the recording, Christensen tells his girlfriend about choking Zhang after he bound her and brought her to his apartment, appearing to describe with admiration how ferociously she resisted.

"She was valiant," he says.

At his apartment, Christensen raped, choked, stabbed and beat Zhang, then decapitated her, according to prosecutors.

Christensen, now 29, is heard telling his girlfriend he had been eager to tell someone that he killed Zhang, and that he's only told her and that he trusts her. But he said he wouldn't tell her or anyone else what he did with Zhang's body.

Members of Zhang's family, who traveled to Illinois from China to join the search, were going to "leave empty-handed," he is heard telling his girlfriend.

"No one will ever know where she is," he says. "She's gone forever."

Prosecutors say Christensen had been fantasizing about killing someone and becoming infamous. He seems to allude to the fantasy when he talks to his girlfriend about what Zhang's death means.

"It's just my legacy," he said.

Defense attorneys seeking to spare him a possible death sentence have told jurors that he did killed Zhang, though they dispute some details from prosecutors about how and why he did it.

The trial resumes Monday.