Mental Health Counselors Testify About Treatment For Brendt Christensen

Unofficial Yingying Zhang Memorial at the campus bus stop where she was last seen.

Flowers, ribbons, messages and plush toys are features of an unofficial memorial for Yingying Zhang at the U of I campus bus stop where she was last seen in June 2017. Nearby, a formal memorial garden has also been erected.

Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

The sentencing phase of the Brendt Christensen trial continued Friday in U.S. District Court in Peoria, with testimony from mental health counselors and the defendant’s ex-wife.

Christensen was found guilty last month of the 2017 kidnapping and murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang. At issue now is whether Christensen will be sentenced to death or to life in prison.

During Friday’s testimony, University of Illinois mental health counselors took the stand. The counselors said Christensen told them he had a fascination with serial killers and fantasized about killing. They testified that he had “thoughts about how he could do it,” and was “pretty far along,” in planning ways to kill a person and “getting away with it.” Christensen also said he had purchased items “to transport and dispose of,” a body, but had later disposed of those items.

Tom Miebach was one of four counselors who saw Christensen in the three to four months before the murder of Yingying Zhang.  Specifically, Miebach’s job was to evaluate Christensen’s risk of harm to self or others. He said Christensen told him during a session in late March 2017 that he was okay, and because he came in willingly, and scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week, he saw no reason to mandate his return. But Miebach said Christensen failed to appear for his appointment.

Christensen also met with Jennifer Maupin, a U of I drug and alcohol counselor who is now in private practice. Maupin testified that she referred Christensen to the Rosecrance Treatment Center in Champaign, which she said could offer him “one stop shopping”.

Both Miebach and Maupin are the subjects of a federal civil lawsuit filed by the estate of Yingying Zhang. Specifically the suit claims negligence, and accuses the two counselors of acting with “deliberate indifference” and failing to address Christensen’s homicidal ideations. In doing so, the lawsuit says the two counselors created a, “specific and identifiable threat to students” on the U of I’s Urbana-Champaign campus.

For their last witness on Friday, the defense called in an expert witness who called the counselors’ handling of Christensen’s case into question. Dr. Susan Zoline is a clinical psychologist, who consults and provides workshops to mental health and other professionals on topics related to professional ethics. She also co-chairs an ethics committee for the Illinois Psychological Association.

Dr Zoline said Christensen’s thoughts of suicide and homicide plus other factors would have led most clinicians to elevate his risk status to ‘serious’, although involuntary hospitalization would not have been required.

She noted Christensen was referred for drug and alcohol evaluation, but that counselors did not recommend action on his homicidal and suicidal ideations. Zoline said his specific homicidal ruminations were notable, because they are not something generally heard in college counselling centers. She says the defendant also reported taking sleep medication and an antidepressant and also drinking heavily. But she says nobody asked him for permission to consult with his psychiatrist on his behalf, which may have led to adjustments in his medication.

Further, Zoline testified that Christensen had reported his ex-wife, who was the lone-person he turned to for social-emotional support, had just threatened to leave him and was also seeing another man. Christensen was also planning to graduate in about five-weeks, had no future plans and was concerned about his finances.

Zoline said all of those supporting factors should have been taken into consideration along with  with Christensen’s homicidal and suicidal thoughts.

“He went willingly to the counseling center,” Zoline said. “If more intensive/attentive services were provided maybe this could have been prevented. I don’t believe he received the help he needed and should have received.”

Christensen had been excused from the court by the time Zoline took the stand. He returned from lunch with a migraine headache and asked to be returned to the jail where he was being held.   

The first defense witness of the day was Christensen’s ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, who had testified during the guilt phase of the trial in June. She answered questions that appeared designed to call attention to his human qualities.

Zortman’s appearance on the stand gave her an opportunity to counter the effect of a recording played in court of a jailhouse phone conversation, in which she cracked an unkind joke about Terra Bullis, Christensen’s girlfriend. Bullis had secretly recorded Christensen for the FBI, as he described killing Yingying Zhang.

Defense attorneys have conceded Christensen’s guilt, but argue that he should not be put to death.

Judge Jim Shadid has said the sentencing phase will likely go to the jury next week. But first, defense attorneys plan to have Christensen’s mother and sister testify. The defendant’s father, Mike Christensen, gave emotional testimony earlier this week. 

UPDATE: This article has been expanded and revised from its original posting. - JM 11:30 PM 7/12/19

Follow Tanya Koonce on Twitter at @tkoonce . 

Story source: WILL