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Missing Chinese Scholar

Members of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang's family walk with lawyers Wednesday outside the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Peoria before the trial of Brendt Christensen. 

PEORIA — In the days following the alleged abduction and killing of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, Brendt Christensen repeatedly checked social media and news websites for posts and stories about her disappearance, according to data extracted from his cellphone and computers.

At Christensen's trial in U.S. District Court Monday, FBI Senior Forensic Examiner William O'Sullivan also detailed the data that was found on Christensen's electronics devices from before Zhang's disappearance in June 2017. That February, for example, Christensen viewed an article about human decomposition, and prosecutors detailed his multiple online searches from April 2017 related to serial killers and visits to pages dedicated to abduction fantasies.

Earlier Monday, an FBI agent confirmed that investigators have not been able to corroborate Christensen's statements, recorded by his then-girlfriend who was wearing a wire for the FBI, that he killed 12 people before he killed Zhang.

FBI Special Agent Andrew Huckstadt told jurors that "we've said multiple times" evidence hasn't been recovered linking Christensen with other murders. In the recording, played for jurors on Friday, Christensen told his then-girlfriend that Zhang was his 13th victim.

"However, that's not the same as saying it's completely impossible," Huckstadt said. "We're continuing to investigate and that's as far as we can go at this time."

The data was gathered as investigators zeroed in on Christensen, 30, following Zhang's disappearance. Christensen's defense attorney in his opening statements admitted his client killed Zhang. Christensen is facing the death penalty.

FBI agent: No evidence to back up Brendt Christensen's claim that Chinese scholar was his 13th victim, but 'not saying it's completely impossible'

O'Sullivan pulled data from Christensen's phone that showed in the months before Zhang's disappearance on June 9, 2017, Christensen downloaded images of naked and shackled women, which were briefly shown to jurors Monday.

On April 22, 2017, Christensen exchanged messages with another user on Fetlife.com about planning a sexual encounter that involved him abducting her from her home. According to data the FBI extracted from his phone, Christensen told the other Fetlife.com user he would break into her house and be waiting for her, and then would jump her when she least expected it, binding her, gagging her and then putting her in a duffel bag and into his car.

The following day, Christensen did a Google search for "Champaign knife sharpening."

In late May, roughly two weeks before Zhang's disappearance, Christensen, in a text message exchange with his then-girlfriend, said "I don't care how I am remembered, just that I am."

"Fading into nothingness is not an option," he continued in another message. "I would rather destroy humanity than let that happen."

On June 9, 2017, the day Zhang disappeared while she was on her way to sign a lease at a new apartment, Christensen spent the morning checking his messages on Reddit, his email and exchanging text messages with his wife and his girlfriend, according to data extracted from his phone.

"You're unique and in a weird unique situation," Christensen texted his girlfriend that day. "It makes you my kitten."

That was the last message sent before a security camera captured Zhang entering a black Saturn Astra shortly after 2 p.m., O'Sullivan said.

On the evening of June 12, Christensen sent a text message to his girlfriend that said the FBI had just visited his house "looking for a missing girl."

"She got into a black Saturn Astra Friday and hasn't been seen since," Christensen wrote.

The following morning, he cleared all of the data from his Google Chrome history, O'Sullivan said.

Jurors listen to suspect say he killed scholar from China

In the following days, and until his June 30, 2017, arrest, Christensen would repeatedly visit Reddit pages about Zhang's disappearance and search for news stories and Facebook posts about Zhang's disappearance.

The FBI seized Christensen's cellphone and desktop on June 15, and he continued to use a laptop. One June 29, the day before his arrest, Christensen viewed a story about the FBI finding the car Zhang entered before her disappearance weeks earlier.

O'Sullivan detailed other undated online browsing data recovered from Christensen's devices that showed he did a Google search for "sodium hypochlorite," or bleach, and viewed Wikipedia articles about serial killers Dennis Rader and John Wayne Gacy.

During her cross-examination of O'Sullivan, defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock said the timeline he compiled represented a fraction of all of Christensen's online activity, and highlighted that he pulled some of the items as potentially useful without having context.

"Because you didn't know the context, you probably didn't know Mr. Christensen's wife asked him to take care of that for the kitchen knives," Pollock said, in response to O'Sullivan flagging a web search for knife sharpening.

O'Sullivan acknowledged that a small percentage of what he estimated were hundreds of pornographic photos and videos were disturbing in nature, in response to Pollock's questioning, and said his visits to "question and answer" pages on Fetlife.com about abductions were for novices seeking more information about the activity, and that the visits were short -- some only lasting around 30 seconds.

In Christensen's April message exchange with a woman on Fetlife.com, he responded to her post about wanting to be abducted, and he also proposed they draw up a written consent form before going forward with it, Pollock said.

O'Sullivan acknowledged there were "easily thousands" of messages between Christensen and his then-girlfriend, many of which were not included in the timeline he compiled after extracting data from Christensen's phone.

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