Where is Brendt Christensen today? He is in the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Christensen is now 30 years old.
Christensen detailed the brutal murder of the 26-year-old scholar to his girlfriend, Terra Bullis. She wore a wire and recorded the conversation for the FBI. You can read the full transcript of Christensen’s confession here. At the time of the murder, Christensen was married to Michelle Zortman, and they were in an open marriage. Michelle Zortman and Brendt Christensen are now divorced.
Christensen escaped the death penalty in the shocking murder case of Zhang, who was an international scholar studying at the University of Illinois. Zhang was a researcher in crop productivity and photosynthesis. She arrived at the university in the spring of 2017. On Friday, June 9, 2017, she spent the morning at Turner Hall, where she conducted her research. She planned to meet someone to sign a lease that afternoon, and encountered a person in a black Saturn Astra, according to the affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
She got into the car, and was never seen again. Her body was never found. Christensen was a Ph.D student researcher at the university.
The death shocked the college community and sent ripples to Zhang’s hometown in China. 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:
Brendt Christensen Is Incarcerated in a Federal Prison in Oklahoma City & a Handbook Explains What His Life Is Like in Prison
Brendt Christensen incarcerated at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center, according to his records at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He is incarcerated within the federal prison system because his case was investigated by the FBI.
He bragged about the murder to his girlfriend, Terra Bullis, during a conversation she recorded for the FBI. You can read the entire 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.”
Here is his prison record:
According to the Federal Transfer Center Holdover Admission and Orientation Handbook, inmates who are housed at a federal transfer center are typically there temporarily, before they are moved to another facility. It was unclear whether Christensen would be transferred to another facility, or when he would be moved.
“You are housed at the Federal Transfer Center (FTC), Oklahoma City, Oklahoma,” the handbook says. “This facility is primarily designed to house holdover inmates in-transit to other facilities.”
Most inmates are held at the transfer center for 4 to 6 weeks, but it is not uncommon for an inmate to be held there more than 60 days, according to the handbook.
“The mission of the Federal Transfer Center is to confine, on a short term basis, inmates who are being transported through the U.S. Marshal Service, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, U.S. Parole Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons transportation system,” the handbook says.
The handbook further details what Christensen’s life is like in prison. The facility houses both male and female inmates. The cells include two bunk beds, a toilet, sink and common showering area. Inmates are required to make their beds by 8 a.m. every morning. Inmates have quiet hours between 9:15 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Some inmates are also permitted to work in the facility. Those who are in good standing are compensated for five hours of work at 12 cents per hour. Those who have restrictions cannot be paid more than $5.25 per month.
Phone calls are only permitted during quiet hours, and calls are limited to 15 minutes. Inmates are never permitted Internet access. They are served breakfast at 6 a.m., lunch at 10:30 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m.
Visitors are permitted from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends and federal holidays. Inmates are allowed visitors based on a point system. Each visiting day costs an inmate one point, and each visitor on a holiday costs the inmate two points.
There are 1,257 inmates held at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center, according to the prison website.
Brendt Christensen Escaped the Death Penalty in the Murder of Yingying Zhang
Brendt Christenson’s life was spared when a jury could not agree whether he should receive the death penalty, according to ABC7. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on July 18, 2019. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in the case.
Christensen bragged about the murder in a recorded conversation. Pieces of it were read to the jury during opening statements.
“Yingying is gone. She is never going to be found,” he said, according to WTTW. “The FBI has looked for her. The police and FBI don’t know where she is. I’m apparently very good at this.”
Federal defender George Taseff admitted in his opening statements that his client killed Zhang. He wanted his client to escape the death penalty.
“So let me just say here at the outset, it will be startling for many of you to hear, Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying,” Taseff said, according to WTTW. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying.”
Law enforcement found their suspect through vehicle registration and surveillance footage. Only 18 four-door Saturn Astras were registered in Champaign County, and other details – such as a sunroof and a cracked hubpcap – led them right to Christensen, according to the affidavit of probable cause filed in his case.
Officials first questioned him June 12. At first, he said he could not remember where he was between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. three days earlier. Later in the interview, he said he was either sleeping or playing video games all day. He admitted the Saturn Astra was his. Officials did a quick search of his vehicle, but did not find any evidence, court documents said.
In an interview at the FBI Champaign office June 15, Christensen told officials he was driving around campus June 9 when he saw an Asian female “appearing distressed.” She told him she was late to an appointment and he offered to give her a ride. She showed him where she needed to go using a map on her phone. He told police he must have made a wrong turn because she became “panicked” and he dropped her off a few blocks from the place he picked her up, the affidavit said.
FBI agents made a startling discovery on his phone, which they took into evidence along with other electronics. In April, he visited a forum called “Abduction 101” on a fetish website called “FetLife.” He also visited sub-threads called “perfect abduction fantasy” and “planning a kidnapping,” court documents said. The FetLife website describes itself as “the Social Network for the BDSM, Fetish & Kinky Community. Like Facebook, but run by kinksters like you and me. We think it is more fun that way.”
On June 29, he admitted in a recorded conversation he kidnapped Zhang and held her against her will in his apartment, according to the affidavit. That same days, officials allege he attended a vigil for Zhang.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois issued a press release following a preliminary hearing in the case July 5. It said, “According to statements made by the government during today’s hearing, the government alleges that Christensen attended and walked in a vigil for the victim on June 29; has made statements about the characteristics of the ideal victim; that the victim fought and resisted; and, that he made a threat to another person to whom he made incriminating statements.”