Zortman and Christensen were in an open marriage, and Christensen was dating Terra Bullis. Zortman testified against Christensen at the Zhang murder trial, and Bullis recorded a full confession of the ghastly murder, in which Christensen bragged about what he did. You can read the full transcript of Brendt Christensen’s murder confession here and read more about Bullis here.
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. In 2020, Zhang’s family is still looking for closure and her body has never been found. She went missing from the University of Illinois June 7, 2017.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Michelle Zortman Was Out of Town With Her Boyfriend the Weekend of Yingying Zhang’s Murder
Michelle Zortman and Brendt Christensen were in an open marriage, although Christensen did not initially accept Zortman’s idea to date other people. He eventually struck up a relationship with Terra Bullis, who was Christensen’s girlfriend when Zhang was murdered. Between the murder and the trial, Zortman filed for a divorce from Christensen. Read more about Zortman here.
The weekend Zhang was murdered, she was on a romantic getaway to the place where her husband proposed to her – but she was with her boyfriend, not her husband. The trip was to the Wisconsin Dells, where Zortman and Christensen also went on their honeymoon. The couple had a simple wedding, married by a lawyer. Their parents and four friends were the only people who attended. They were married in 2011, according to ABC 20.
It was Zortman’s idea to pursue an open marriage, after one of her coworkers propositioned her. Christensen was reluctant at first, but later started dating Bullis in 2017, according to WTTW.
Zortman and Bullis spent time together, and Zortman even drove Bullis and Christensen after a date. After Zortman learned Bullis had secretly recorded Christensen for the FBI, she made a joke during a recorded jail phone call about Bullis being carried out on a stretcher after Bullis testified against Christensen, according to ABC 20. She later apologized to the court, saying that she was emotional at the time.
You can read the full transcript of Brendt Christensen’s murder 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.”
2. Michelle Zortman Attributed Trouble in the Marriage to Alcohol Abuse & a Fascination With Serial Killers
Zortman testified about the problems in her marriage with Christensen during his murder trial. He was addicted to Vicodin, a painkiller he was prescribed after a roofing accident. Zortman’s addiction began with the roof accident, when he fell, shattering both of his wrists and elbows in 2008. A doctor called it “the Super Bowl of wrist injuries,” Zortman testified, according to the News-Gazette. He also began abusing alcohol, which ultimately led to their divorce, according to WTTW.
“I felt like our marriage had hit a dead end with his drinking and substance abuse,” Zortman said at trial.
However, one of their most serious marital problems was an apparent fascination with serial killers. Christensen told a counseling intern that he opened up about the fascination with his wife, which caused a dispute that almost ended the marriage. He said he had found an online forum about serial killers, and had even bought equipment to commit a murder, according to WTTW.
“I don’t think I’m a psychopath or a sociopath,” he told the intern, adding he didn’t think he would kill a person. “I don’t want to live with the guilt.”
Christensen began abusing alcohol during his summer and winter breaks at the University of Wisconsin, she testified. She had concerns about his drinking, but the couple was married in 2011. They moved to Champaign, and Christensen started his post-graduated studies at the University of Illinois. She testified they had “almost no social life outside of each other” and spent every night together playing video games and watching movies.
3. Michelle Zortman Described Herself as a Private Person & Moved Out of State After the Divorce
Michelle Zortman testified against her ex-husband at his murder trial, but it was not a something she felt comfortable doing. After her divorce from Christensen, she changed her last name back to her maiden name and moved out of state.
After moving out of state, she maintained contact with Christensen, according to ABC 7.
She testified that it was difficult for her to cut all ties with Christensen, according to the News-Gazette.
“He was the biggest person in my life for most of a decade,” she said. “It’s difficult to end ties like that.”
When she was asked during her testimony if she wished she was not there, she responded, “Very much.”
4. Michelle Zortman & Brendt Christensen Were High School Sweethearts & Married in 2011
Brendt Christensen and Michelle Zortman were high school sweethearts. They first met in high school and also worked together at K-Mart, according to the News-Gazette. The couple started dating in 2008, the same year as Christensen’s injury that led to an addiction to painkillers.
The couple soon moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and Christensen attended the University of Wisconsin. They were married in 2011.
Michelle Zortman was Brendt Christensen’s wife when he kidnapped and murdered international scholar Yingying Zhang. Zortman filed for divorce between the murder and the trial, and changed her last name back to her maiden name.
5. Michelle Zortman Became ‘Leery’ of Her Husband After the FBI Called Him for Questioning
On June 12, 2017, FBI agents showed up at Christensen’s apartment, and his wife, then Michelle Christensen, was also there, according to an opinion issued by Chief United States District Judge James E. Shadid January 14, 2019. Agents spoke with Christensen and Zortman in their living room about Zhang’s disappearance.
Law enforcement officers said in the legal documents they tried to call Christensen by phone several times, and that he allowed them inside. Zortman – who was then Michelle Christensen – walked into the living room nude and “initially declined” to put clothes on, standing with her hands on her hips, the order said. Officers said she “generally cooperated” with the investigation.
After her husband was brought in for questioning in Zhang’s disappearance, she became “leery” of him. She started sleeping in a different room, and even set up objects by the door to wake her up if he went into her room. She testified she was sure he was responsible for Zhang’s death, but continued to keep in touch with him anyway.
After the murder, she noticed about half a tank of gas was used in their car, indicating Christensen had driven about 200 miles. He told her a “sizable” blood stain on their mattress was from a nosebleed. He also told her he cleaned out the interior of their car twice, according to ABC 7. The stain on their mattress tested positive for Zhang’s DNA.