Face to Face: Investigators talk interrogating Christensen, finding his car

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University of Illinois Police talk about what it was like to find Brendt Christensen’s car and interrogate him

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS (WCIA) — They worked hundreds of hours to bring a kidnapper and killer to justice. Now they’re sharing their story.

When Yingying Zhang was kidnapped, investigators at the University of Illinois Police Department worked tirelessly, hoping to find her. Zhang was a visiting scholar at the university. She was kidnapped and killed in June 2017.

Her killer will be behind bars the rest of his life, but before he was caught and convicted, detectives met with him face-to-face to press him for information.

For 21 days, Brendt Christensen thought he was getting away with kidnapping and murder. But he was being watched by The FBI and the UIPD, and he wasn’t counting on being busted by his own car, or called out during an interview he agreed to sit down for.

“Why am I under suspicion?” Christensen asks in the interview video. UIPD Detective Eric Stiverson had several questions for him.

“You know that we didn’t bring you all the way up here to talk about video games and what you had for lunch that day,” he says to Christensen in the video.

“It could have ended badly,” Stiverson told reporter Aaron Eades, “He could have been like, you know what, I don’t like your attitude, I’m done talking, I want an attorney. He basically showed no emotion, but as the interview progressed, there were some clear indicators of stress on him where you could tell that he had realized that we knew that he had picked her up.”

“At what point did you know he did it?” Eades asked.

“I had a strong feeling that he did it after the discovery that he was the owner of the car that had the broken hubcap,” Stiverson said.

That was a key piece of evidence tying Christensen to the crime, but it was buried in hundreds of hours of surveillance footage investigators spent days combing through. Until Sergeant James Carter saw something.

“I started watching the video, trying to find some sort of anomaly,” he said, “I watched it forwards, backwards. I got to one particular frame, and I looked at it, and I determined that’s in fact, there was a defect on that hubcap, on that tire.”

“When you saw that, what were you thinking?” asked Eades.

“I was like, um, maybe this is something we could use,” said Carter, “Something distinctive that I could pass on.”

With the car locked down, Stiverson says all he had to do was press Christensen a little harder.

“Was I trying to play good cop, bap cop?” he said, “No. But I was trying to set context with him, and I was addressing his denials, saying we’re not gonna just spin tires here, we’re gonna move forward in this interview, and part of moving forward was for him to be honest with me, and tell me that he picked her up. Once he admitted that he picked up an Asian female, then I knew it was him. Without a doubt.”

During his trial this summer, Christensen faced the death penalty, but the jury didn’t unanimously approve it. Because of that, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

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