Brendt Christensen was in an open marriage in 2017 and dating a woman who would soon record a full confession to the brutal murder of Yingying Zhang. He was living with his wife, Michelle Zortman, and dating Terra Bullis.
Brendt Christensen’s parents, Mike Christensen and Ellen Williams, described him as a loving boy. He also had a sister, Andrea Williams, who said she looked up to her brother, according to Illinois Public Media.
The story of Zhang’s tragic death is being retold on ABC 20/20 in an encore episode that airs Friday, June 12, 2020 at 9 p.m. Now, Zhang’s family is still looking for closure.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Brendt Christensen’s Dad, Mike Christensen, Said the University of Illinois Could Have Prevented Yingying Zhang’s Death
Michael Christensen, Brendt Christensen’s dad, said on ABC 20/20 the University of Illinois did not act responsibly when Christensen sought mental health treatment in March 2017, three months before Yingying Zhang was brutally murdered. His stance was a tack his son’s defense team took during Christensen’s trial. While Christensen was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, he avoided the death penalty.
Christensen’s first appointment was with an intern training to be a counselor. Their session was recorded, according to ABC 20. He told her he was experiencing suicidal and homicidal thoughts. When pressed, he even said he had purchased items to be used in a murder. The intern asked a counselor for help, and she discussed voluntary hospitalization with Christensen. He declined, but agreed to come to another appointment. He downplayed the thoughts and attributed them to alcohol abuse.
“How can somebody that is like this commit a crime like this? It makes no sense,” Mike Christensen told ABC News on 20/20. “Something had to have happened. Something snapped.”
He described his son as a gentle person, and said he never knew him to be violent.
“He has no aggression in him,” Christensen said. “Very gentle, very private, and like all of us, you know, very logical people. My sons, my daughter, myself, we depend upon logic, and so, we can shove our emotions down.”
Christensen said on the show the university should have taken action when he expressed suicidal and homicidal thoughts. His son never went to his second appointment.
“I’m angry that it could’ve been prevented,” he said.
2. Brendt Christensen’s Mom, Ellen Williams, Testified at his Trial & Said She Loved Him
Father of convicted Chinese scholar's killer says her death could have been prevented if university took proper action. Brendt Christensen was convicted of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang in June 2017 https://t.co/pMekfPS9iS
— Fawzia (@fairenhite) November 13, 2019
Ellen Williams, Brendt Christensen’s mom, was not in denial that her son murdered Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar. But she said she still loved him, according to Illinois Public Media. Brendt was a happy and gentle child, she said during his trial. He did well in school and he was active in sports.
However, he was also troubled. He suffered from night terrors as a child, along with migraine headaches. She said he suffered from PTSD after a roofing accident left him with severe injuries to both elbows and wrists. Following his injuries, he was prescribed Vicodin and eventually began to abuse the narcotic, his wife, Michelle Zortman, testified at his trial, according to WTTW. He had a more serious problem, though, with alcohol abuse.
Ellen Williams, also was an alcoholic, according to Illinois Public Media. Brendt Christensen’s mom and dad were divorced when he was young. Williams testified she was shocked to learn her son killed Zhang.
“Ellen Williams said she thought of the suffering of Zhang’s family several times a day,” the news outlet reported. “But both she and Andrea Christensen said their love for Brendt Christensen was unconditional, with Williams testifying that she understood her son’s decision to lie to her, denying that he killed Zhang, prior to defense attorneys conceding his guilt in the opening arguments of the trial.”
3. Andrea Christensen, Brendt Christensen’s Sister, Said She Always Looked Up to her Brother
Yingying Zhang was last seen alive on June 9, 2017 getting into Brendt Christensen’s black Saturn Astra on the U of I campus after she missed a bus to an appointment. The two did not previously know each other.
— WTTW (Chicago PBS) (@wttw) November 15, 2019
Brendt Christensen’s sister, Andrea Christensen, testified at his trial and said she always looked up to her brother, according to Illinois Public Media.
“Andrea Christensen says life growing up was strained by her mother’s alcoholism and her parents’ failing marriage. But she testified that she always looked up to her brother Brendt,” the news outlet reported.
She testified she was shocked by the brutal kidnap and murder, but loves her brother unconditionally. Their parents, Ellen Williams and Mike Christensen, were divorced when their children were young.
4. Brendt Christensen Was in an Open Marriage With Michelle Zortman & Later Divorced
On June 9, 2017, the day Brendt Christensen kidnapped and murdered visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, he was married to Michelle Zortman, whose name at the time was Michelle Christensen. The couple divorced before the trial, and had discussed separating in March 2017. They were in an open marriage after Zortman’s co-worker propositioned her. Christensen agreed to an open marriage after a few days, according to WTTW.
The weekend of the murder, Zortman was with her boyfriend visiting the Wisconsin Dells. It was ther that Christensen proposed to Zortman. They also had their honeymoon there. You can read more about Zortman and their marriage here.
Christensen and Zortman met in high school and worked together at K-Mart, according to the News-Gazette. They started dating in 2008. That same year, Christensen was working for a roofing company when he fell, breaking both his wrists and elbows. A doctor called it “the Super Bowl of wrist injuries,” Zortman testified. They later moved to Madison, Wisconsin together, and Christensen attended the University of Wisconsin. One night in December, Christensen was drunk and made a comment that disturbed her, to the point that she discussed divorcing him.
Christensen started seeing a counselor after Michelle Zortman asked him for a divorce, according to ABC 20. He reported he was experiencing suicidal thoughts and homicidal thoughts during an initial intake in March 2017, just three months before the brutal murder of Yingying Zhang.
Zortman moved out of state and changed her name back to her maiden name, according to an order by James E. Shadid Chief United States District Judge January 14, 2019.
5. Terra Bullis, Brendt Christensen’s Girlfriend, Recorded a Confession of the Brutal Murder
After Brendt Christensen agreed to an open marriage, and his wife, Michelle Christensen, began dating her coworker, Brendt Christensen joined an online dating site and met Terra Bullis. It was Bullis who obtained a full confession of the murder of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang. You can read more about her here.
At the time of the murder June 9, 2017, in Champaign, Illinois, Christensen was in an open relationship with his wife, Michelle Zortman. Bullis was polyamorous, and living with a group of polyamorous housemates, according to the Chicago-Tribune. Bullis was terrified to hear her boyfriend detailing the brutal murder. After he was arrested, she sought mental health treatment and could no longer work, according to the News-Gazette.
“It’s 6:46 on Thursday, June 29th,” Bullis began. “We’re at the benefit for the walk and Brendt has a thing of alcohol and he is drinking while he is here, so, I’m thinking I’m just gonna turn this on right now so that it’s on while we walk,” she said. “This is kind of ridiculous.”
You can read the full transcript of Brendt Christensen’s confession here.
“Yingying is gone. I won’t tell you where she is. I won’t tell anyone where she is,” he said, according to the transcript. “The FBI has looked for her. The police and FBI don’t know where she is. I’m apparently very good at this.”
Terra Bullis was terrified as she listened to her boyfriend described the brutal murder of Yingying Zhang.
“At one point, prosecutor James Nelson asked about loud thumping that could be heard through much of the June 29 audio,” ABC News reported.
“That was my heartbeat,” Bullis responded.
At the end of their evening together on June 29, 2017, Bullis went home and called the FBI. She testified she was feeling “devastated,” according to the News-Gazette. Christensen was arrested the next day.
Bullis said she began seeking mental health treatment. She was “no longer able to work in a public environment” during her testimony. She asked the FBI for some financial assistance, and received between $7,000 and $8,000.
When asked why she wore a wire and recorded Christensen, she said, “Because it was necessary.”