Brendt Christensen was a PhD student researcher who is now spending his life behind bars for the kidnap and brutal murder of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang.
Her murder caused grief around the globe after her disappearance on June 9, 2017, at the University of Illinois. Zhang was a 26-year-old student who was engaged to be married.
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, and her remains were never found.
Here’s what you need to know:
Brendt Christensen Is Imprisoned in a Federal Correctional Facility in Florida
Brendt Christensen is imprisoned at the USP Coleman II, a high-security federal penitentiary in Sumterville, Florida, according to his prison records. He is incarcerated within the federal prison system because his case was investigated by the FBI.
USP Coleman II is located in central Florida and houses 1,0237 male inmates, the prison website says. A handbook given to inmates details their rules, procedures and daily life. You can read the handbook in full here.
“The Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida, consists of five separate facilities: central administration building, two high security penitentiaries, a medium security institution with a satellite camp, and a low security institution. Each facility operates under the direction of its respective Warden. However, the Wardens and Deputy Wardens act in conjunction when making decisions which affect the overall Complex,” the handbook says.
Here is Christensen’s prison record:
When the episode about Zhang’s murder first aired, Christensen was incarcerated at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center. He was eventually transferred to his more permanent lockup in Florida.
Inmates at the transfer center are given a Federal Transfer Center Holdover Admission and Orientation Handbook, which says inmates who are housed at a federal transfer center are typically there temporarily, before they are moved to another facility.
“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.
Brendt Christensen Escaped the Death Penalty to Spend Life in Prison
Prosecutors sought the death penalty in Brendt Christensen’s murder case, but his life was spared when a jury could not agree on his sentence. He was sentenced to life in prison on July 18, 2019, according to ABC 7. His defense attorney told jurors Christensen is “a whole person, he’s not just the worst thing he’s ever done.”
The murder trial gained international attention both because Zhang was a beloved member of her community with great promise, and because of the strange details of Christensen’s private life. Christensen was married to Michelle Zortman at the time of the murder and in an open relationship. He also had a girlfriend, Terra Bullis, who recorded a full confession for the FBI. In the recording, Christensen shared shocking details about the grisly murder and bragged about the killing.
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.”
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.”