Closing Arguments Set For Monday In Christensen Trial

Peoria federal courthouse sign.

Sign for the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Peoria, where Brendt Christensen is being tried for the kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang.

Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

Brendt Christensen, the man accused of kidnapping and killing University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, will not testify in his own defense. Saying so in response to a question from U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid was the first time Christensen had spoken in court during his trial, not counting recordings entered as evidence.

Christensen’s statement on Friday, in a federal courtroom in Peoria, happened after federal prosecutors rested their case, ending eight days of testimony from a variety of witnesses. The defense team also got its turn Friday, calling their witnesses and resting their case, too.

The defense called two witnesses to further call into question the testimony of Charles Hill. Hill had testified for the prosecution about his conversations with Christensen while he was an inmate at the Macon County Jail in Decatur, in a cell adjacent to the defendant’s. Hill said Christensen told him he carried a badge, police radio or walkie-talkie and zip ties to impersonate a police officer. Public defender George Taseff questioned why Hill was not back in jail already as he had violated terms of his release in March of this year with a retail theft charge. Taseff questioned the validity of Hill’s testimony and asked if he was being given special treatment by federal prosecutors for his testimony.

Ex-Wife’s Testimony

The defense also called Christensen’s ex-wife Michelle Zortman. Attorney Beth Polleck questioned her. Zortman told the jury that she started dating Christensen in 2008 when they were 20 and 19 respectively. She said that throughout their relationship, particularly in the early years, the two rarely spent nights or free time apart.

Presenting Zortman’s testimony was the defense’s effort to counter Christensen’s own words that he had killed 12 other victims, starting from the time he was about 19 in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Christensen made the claim of previous murders in conversations secretly taped for the FBI by his then-girlfriend, Terra Bullis.  

Zortman’s testimony also provided the defense's answer to questions about the motives for some of Christensen’s internet searches, including a search for instructions on knife sharpening. Zortman said she had tasked him to do that to help with her cooking, because he had more time than she did. Zortman said she had done most of the cooking during his marriage to Christensen, who showed a bit of a smile when she said, “He made a steak once.”

But after one night of heavy drinking in November 2016, Zortman said Christensen said some things that really disturbed her --- in fact, scared her. She said his drug and alcohol use had also escalated, he was struggling with depression and their marriage was never the same again.

At some point after that time, a male co-worker suggested opening their marriage. Zortman says she talked to Christensen about it and eventually he agreed. But he still showed little, if any emotion or expression, which she says was normal for him.

Zortman says Christensen's drug and alcohol use hit a “dead end point” in March 2017 and she talked to him about divorce. She says he cried when she brought up the subject, which was unusual for him, and worked to convince her to stay. That's when Christensen went to the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois Urbana campus, where he had been a doctoral student.

Zortman says she was dating one of her co-workers, Ryan, by then. Around the same time, Christensen also started seeing Terra Bullis. Earlier in the week, Bullis testified for the prosecution about engaging in BDSM (erotic and roleplaying practices involving bondage, discipline and sadomasochism) with Christensen. Zortman says BDSM, was “never their thing" in her marriage with the defendant.  However, she knew Bullis was "heavily into BDSM," and it was something she and Christensen were doing in April 2017. She says that about the same time she was talking about a weekend trip with her boyfriend Ryan, and Christensen approved.

But, Zortman says Christensen told her he was not happy about her leaving with Ryan a few days before the trip. Even so, she says she departed in the early morning hours of Friday June, 9, 2017, the day that Yingying Zhang disappeared. Zortman said that the apartment looked and smelled normal when she returned Sunday evening.

She said Christensen showed her blood on their bed, in the pillow area, and told her they he had had a nosebleed. Zortman also noticed other fainter spots on the bed and says he told her something about those too, but she doesn’t remember what it was.  

Zortman says she also saw Christensen carry a giant 6' x 2' duffle bag out of the apartment and told her he was leaving. She says it "didn't look very full," and there was no odor she noticed. The dufflebag has been a big question mark in the case, with prosecutors demonstrating that it was big enough to hold a body. But what was in the duffle bag, and where was it now? Neither the prosecution nor defense have offered a definitive answer.

Investigation Begins

Zortman said they were asleep after 11pm on the night of June 14, 2017, when the FBI first knocked on the door. She says when they asked Christensen to go to their office to talk, she said he should. She remained in the apartment with the other FBI agents, and said that she felt she did not have a choice whether to let them search. The FBI was "already in my home," she said, and thought that was what she was supposed to do. She also signed a consent form. But, still said she felt unsure in that moment.

Zortman described herself and Christensen as a private couple and said she did not want to be there on the witness stand. At one point in cross-examination, she said she understood “he is responsible for her death” (an admission defense attorneys made about Christensen in their opening arguments). But she says she still cares about Christensen and stays in contact with him, because he was the biggest part of her life for nearly a decade.

Video Of A Counseling Session

After Zortman left the stand, the defense showed Christensen’s counseling video from March 2017 when he was seeking help for his drug and alcohol use. Christensen said in the video that he had no real emotion, but a sense of failure. He had tried as hard as he could to qualify for a PhD in Physics at the University of Illinois and didn’t make it. He said he lost his passion for his research. He talked about having suicidal and homicidal thoughts. But Christensen said there were reasons he couldn’t follow through with harming someone else: “The risks” weren’t worth it, he “wouldn’t last in prison,” and he “didn’t want to live with the guilt.”

That counseling session ended with the counselor trying to bring in someone else for an evaluation. The video ended before that was resolved. But defense attorney Beth Polleck says Christensen returned to the counselling center nine days later, talking about the same issue in greater detail.

On Friday afternoon, after both sides had finished presenting their cases, Judge Jim Shadid excused the jury for the weekend. Then the judge, the seven attorneys, two FBI agents, three to four marshals, the defendant and other support staff worked informally to hash out the specific agreed-upon language for the instructions the jury will receive on Monday. After hearing those instructions, the jury will listen to closing arguments, and begin deliberations. 

Story source: WILL