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.
Zortman and Christensen were in an open relationship when Christensen kidnapped and brutally murdered 26-year-old Zhang. The weekend of the murder, Zortman was out of town with her boyfriend, visiting the Wisconsin Dells, where her husband proposed to her a few years earlier. Christensen bragged about the killing in a recorded confession to his girlfriend, Terra Bullis. Zortman testified about their relationship at his murder trial, and said he had been abusing alcohol, which led to their divorce, according to WTTW. A serious conflict started in their marriage when he confessed he had a fascination with serial killers. He also became addicted to Vicodin, a narcotic painkiller he was first prescribed after a roofing accident.
She moved out of state after their divorce, but remained in contact with Christensen, according to ABC 7. She described herself as a very private person, and said she felt uncomfortable testifying, according to the News-Gazette.
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. Michelle Zortman & Brendt Christensen ‘Didn’t Have a Fancy Wedding’
Michelle Zortman and Brendt Christensen “didn’t have a fancy wedding,” Christensen’s ex-wife testified during the sentencing phase of his trial, according to ABC 20. The couple was married in 2011 after Christensen proposed to her at the Wisconsin Dells. They later had their honeymoon there.
The news station shared a photo of the couple at an informal wedding ceremony. A woman in a suit appears to be conducting the ceremony. Christensen and Zortman are holding hands. The background of the wedding photo shows air conditioner units, a small table and two chairs haphazardly set nearby. Zortman is wearing jeans and a casual long-sleeved shirt. Christensen is wearing dark colored, casual clothing.
The News-Gazette reported a lawyer married them. They had their parents and four friends in attendance.
Zortman was Christensen’s wife at the time of the murder. She was home when FBI agents went to speak to her husband three days after the murder. The couple “generally cooperated” with FBI agents, according to an order by James E. Shadid Chief United States District Judge January 14, 2019. The order followed a motion by Christensen’s attorneys to suppress evidence in the case, which was denied.
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.
2. Michelle Zortman Joked in a Jail Call About Terra Bullis Being Carried Out in a Stretcher
Michelle Zortman made a joke during a recorded jail phone call about Christensen’s girlfriend, Terra Bullis, which she said she later regretted. She joked about Bullis being carried out in a stretcher following her trial testimony, according to ABC 20. She later apologized to the court, saying that she was emotional.
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.
The News-Gazette reported that when Zortman was testifying, Christensen “couldn’t take his eyes off her.”
“It was in stark contrast to the two previous days, when he tried to avoid looking at his ex-girlfriend, who secretly recorded their conversations for the FBI and testified for about seven hours,” the newspaper reported.
Zortman described herself as a very private person during her testimony, according to the News-Gazette. When she was asked during her testimony if she wished she was not there, she responded, “Very much.”
3. Brendt Christensen Had Suicidal & Homicidal Thoughts After Zortman Asked for a Divorce
Brendt 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.
The counselor was an intern who was still in training. Their session was recorded because she had not completed her training. Following the intake session, she contacted another counselor and told her Christensen reported suicidal thoughts. The pair discussed voluntary hospitalization, but Christensen declined. He agreed he would return for another session.
“In her notes, she said he didn’t want to hurt anyone and he did not want to go to prison,” the news station reported. “His wife’s request for a divorce and his trouble with alcohol were two of the main reasons he told the counselor he sought help.”
Christensen also told the counselor he had a growing fixation with serial killers, and spent time researching them in online forums, according to WTTW.
“I’ve always been interested in the bad guys,” Christensen told the intern in a recording played in court.
When she asked if he had taken any steps toward committing a murder, he said he was “pretty far along” and had purchased “a few things” that could be used in a murder. He told her he believed his homicidal thoughts were from alcohol abuse, and that he did not think he would go through with murder.
“I don’t think I’m a psychopath or a sociopath,” he told her.
He later said he did not think he would kill someone, saying, “I don’t want to live with the guilt.”
Zortman first spoke with Christensen about divorcing in March 2017, according to the News-Gazette. She had already asked him multiple times to stop drinking. He would improve briefly, and return to his old habits. The problem was getting worse, and their marriage was “never the same” after he made a disturbing comment in December 2016. She had never seen Christensen emotional until she spoke about divorce.
He got “very emotional. He was crying,” she testified.
4. Michelle Zortman Testified About Her Open Marriage With Christensen & Their Marital Problems at Trial
When Brendt Christensen kidnapped Yingying Zhang and held her against her will in the apartment he shared with his wife, Michelle Zortman was with her boyfriend in the Wisconsin Dells, visiting the place where Christensen proposed and went on honeymoon. Christensen and Zortman were in an open marriage, and Christensen also had a girlfriend. He attended a memorial walk for Zhang with his girlfriend, Terra Bullis, and confessed the murder to her.
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.”
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. One night in December of 2016, he was drunk and made a comment that scared her. She started considering divorce.
“I felt like our marriage had hit a dead end with his drinking and substance abuse,” Zortman testified, according to WTTW.
She became “leery” of him after the FBI called him in for questioning about Zhang’s disappearance. Zortman started sleeping in a different room, and 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.
“He was the biggest person in my life for almost a decade,” she testified. “It’s very difficult to cut ties like that.”
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 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.
5. Michelle Zortman Was Home When the FBI First Came to Speak to her Husband & ‘Generally Cooperated’
It was only three days before the FBI began honing in on Brendt Christensen as a suspect. Surveillance footage showed a black Saturn Astra driving away with Yingying Zhang on the afternoon of June 9, 2017. There were only 18 Saturn Astras registered in Champaign, and Christensen’s vehicle parked near his apartment had a sunroof and cracked hubcap which matched the description of the suspect’s vehicle, according to the affidavit of probable cause filed in his case.
On June 12, 2017, FBI agents went to Christensen’s apartment to speak to him. Zortman was there too, 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.
“At that meeting, both Defendant and Ms. Zortman provided their phone numbers and generally cooperated, allowing the agents to take a cursory look around the apartment and around the car outside,” the opinion said. “The parties also agree that on June 14, 2017, FBI Special Agents and University of Illinois Police Detectives went to Defendant’s apartment around 11:45 p.m., seeking Defendant’s cooperation in executing a search warrant for Defendant’s car. Law enforcement officers searched Defendant’s apartment that night. The parties dispute the circumstances of that search.”
Christensen’s attorneys filed a motion claiming agents completed an unlawful search of the apartment. Zortman said she did not give permission for them to search her home, and did not know she could deny them access. The attorneys asked a judge to suppress evidence found in the search, which the judge denied after determining the search was lawful.
The order said:
According to Ms. Zortman’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing on this matter, agents awoke her around midnight by knocking on the door. Defendant went to answer the door, and when she came out into the hallway to investigate, agents were standing in the hallway shining flashlights into the residence, although Defendant had turned on a hall lamp. She asked who they were, and they said they were FBI, and that they had a search warrant for Mr. Christensen’s car. She was nude at the time. An agent asked her to put some clothes on, so she went into the bedroom alone and put on a robe. When she came back out, agents said they wanted to take Mr. Christensen in for questioning. He said that he didn’t know what he should do, and Ms. Zortman advised him that he should probably go with them. He left with a few agents within about five minutes of the initial knock on the door. Then, multiple agents started going through her belongings, taking pictures, and taking things away. Ms. Zortman testified that she was never overtly asked for permission, and that she did not actively object because she did not believe she had a choice. Two agents, Special Agent Tenaglia and someone else, sat down with her at the kitchen table and asked her questions for about two hours. At some point, the interviewing agents asked if they could look around and take some pictures, and Ms. Zortman said “sure.” During the interview, she volunteered some information that she wasn’t asked for, and she produced a bank statement that she allowed agents to photograph. At the end of the interview, the agents presented Ms. Zortman with a consent form for the search. She claims that they did not read it aloud to her, she did not really process it when she looked at it, she did not know she could refuse to sign it, and the search was already complete when she did sign it. After she had signed the consent form, she claims that an agent picked up a pair of sunglasses nearby and asked to take a picture of it. She agreed, and the agent took the sunglasses with him.
Law enforcement officers responded to the claim, saying that they tried to call Christensen by phone several times, and that he allowed them inside. Zortman, who was Michelle Christensen at the time, walked into the living room nude and “initially declined” to put clothes on, standing with her hands on her hips, the order said. Officials denied completing any searches before they obtained her permission to do so.
“According to Special Agents Tenaglia and Huckstadt, Ms. Zortman was very cooperative,” the order said. “She agreed to be interviewed without hesitation, and she did not appear scared or nervous to them. They did not use any tricks or ruses in their conversation with her, and she generally led the conversation. They offered her breaks, which she took sometimes. At one point, the agents even acknowledged that it was late and they could resume another time, but Ms. Zortman wanted to keep going. She discussed very personal information with them, and actively got up to provide information that might be useful to the agents, including her bank statement and a book she thought Defendant had been reading. At the end of the interview, the agents asked Ms. Zortman if she would consent to a search of the apartment, and she said yes.”
Zortman discussed with Special Agent Tenaglia the possibility of getting a restraining order against Christensen, the order said. When he was released, her tone with the agent changed, and she expressed frustration that her computer was not returned quickly.
“The record demonstrates that the search of Defendant’s apartment was performed only after valid, voluntary consent from Ms. Zortman,” the order said. “For the reasons set forth herein, Defendant’s Motion (Doc. 100) to Suppress Evidence is DENIED.”