URBANA — Brendt Christensen’s former wife on Tuesday shared a far different story of what happened the night FBI agents came to their apartment than the one agents described during testimony a day earlier.
The former Michelle Christensen has since divorced the man accused of kidnapping and killing visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang and changed her last name to Zortman. During testimony at a hearing in Urbana, she described being startled and intimidated by the agents, who came to their apartment about 11:45 p.m. June 14, 2017, to search the couple’s Saturn Astra.
Zortman, 30, directly contradicted testimony given Monday by FBI agents, who said they interviewed her for two hours and then searched her apartment for another hour.
Zortman said agents were searching her apartment during the interview, before she had signed a consent form giving them permission to do so.
When asked Tuesday whether she had objected to the search when she signed a consent form, Zortman replied, "How could I possibly object to a search that had already been done?" She also said she was never told she could refuse.
Zortman said that when she was awakened by the agents’ arrival at the apartment, Christensen opened the door, and she went to see who he was talking to.
Naked and startled, Zortman said she tried to cover herself with her hands and then quickly went to her bedroom alone to put on a robe after being asked to do so.
That directly contradicted Monday testimony from FBI agents, who said Zortman initially refused to put on clothes and stood there with her hands on her hips before eventually agreeing to put on a robe. Agents testified that she was accompanied for safety reasons by a female agent, Katherine Tenaglia, who checked the robe for any potential weapons.
Zortman also said that agents were shining their flashlights, adding to the intimidation.
That particular detail didn’t directly contradict the agents’ testimony. Several of them said Monday that they didn’t shine the flashlights in her face.
While testifying Tuesday, Zortman said that during the two-hour interview, she "thought it was a possibility" Christensen was involved in the disappearance of Ms. Zhang.
Ms. Zhang was last seen on June 9, 2017, entering Christensen’s car.
He was arrested June 30 for allegedly kidnapping the visiting UI scholar, a charge that was later upgraded to kidnapping and killing her, along with lying to the FBI.
If convicted, Christensen faces the death penalty at his trial in April, which is expected to last at least five weeks and will be held in Peoria.
'Is that relevant?'
During his cross-examination Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller tried to paint Zortman as remaining loyal to Christensen.
At one point, Miller asked her whether she still loved Christensen.
After a pause during which Zortman looked at Christensen, she asked, "Is that relevant?"
Miller said he was trying to show bias. After an objection, he eventually rephrased his question, asking her if she had made the decision to stand by Christensen.
"I made the decision to tell the truth," she said.
Miller also noted that her sworn declaration from January was prepared by Assistant Federal Public Defender Elisabeth Pollock from conversations with Zortman.
Christensen’s lawyers are trying to suppress the evidence seized from Christensen’s apartment, including electronics, arguing in motions that Zortman did not validly give consent.
They’re also trying to suppress statements made by Christensen to the FBI and recorded by his girlfriend wearing a wire. They argue in motions that the statements were given after he had asked for a lawyer and, in several instances, were in response to questions investigators had asked Zortman and the informant to ask Christensen.
Zortman said she felt pressure to do what she was told by Tenaglia in the days following the visit from FBI agents when they communicated by text, phone calls and interviews.
Zortman said she was told that cooperating was in her and Christensen’s best interest and would help find Ms. Zhang. Zortman said she felt that if she didn’t cooperate, it could be used against her.
The 14-day rule
In the afternoon, one of Christensen’s attorneys, George Taseff, argued that a 2010 Supreme Court decision made it clear that investigators are supposed to wait at least 14 days to interrogate a suspect after he invokes his rights to counsel.
Christensen’s attorneys had previously argued that he did so June 14, when he asked his girlfriend if he should get a lawyer. They now point to him invoking his Miranda rights about 1:30 a.m. June 15, when he cut off questioning at an FBI field office in Champaign.
Although Christensen voluntarily agreed to meet with FBI agents two days later, on June 17, Taseff said that a waiver of rights should be made without influence by investigators.
And Taseff argued that the FBI essentially used Christensen’s girlfriend as an agent when she was made an informant, and therefore, the conversations recorded by her violated the 14-day rule.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres acknowledged the 14-day rule, but said the reverse isn’t true — that Christensen couldn’t approach investigators.
He said it wouldn’t make any sense for the FBI to ignore Christensen when he asked to speak with them.
And Freres said it’s hard to argue that Christensen was pressured to speak with the FBI, noting that he is heard on a recording by his girlfriend calling Tenaglia to set up a meeting with agents.
Christensen is also heard saying he wanted the meeting to clear his name.
During the questioning of Zortman, Miller asked whether she had received a request from Christensen on July 4, following his arrest, to delete his Reddit account.
Zortman said she was asked to cancel several of his subscriptions and accounts but noted that deleting a Reddit account doesn’t erase its posts.
After Zortman testified, prosecutors called FBI agent Andrew Huckstadt as a rebuttal witness.
Huckstadt denied Zortman’s testimony, saying he and the other agents did not search her apartment prior to being given consent and would never do so.
"Absolutely not," he said.
Huckstadt also noted the timestamps of photos taken at Christensen’s apartment.
One photo of aviator sunglasses was taken during the interview with Zortman’s consent at 1:36 a.m., before she gave consent to the apartment search at 1:45 a.m., according to the FBI.
The first photo taken after consent was given to search the apartment had a timestamp of 1:58 a.m., and the last photo taken during the search was at 3:08 a.m., according to Huckstadt’s reading of the metadata during his testimony.
But Pollock indicated that the timestamps of those photos were exactly two hours earlier on the defense’s copies, which came as a surprise to Huckstadt.
After a lunch break, he testified that the earlier timestamps weren’t possible, that he checked the metadata and that he was certain the FBI’s timestamps were correct.
Regarding the Reddit account, Huckstadt said he had obtained a search warrant for Christensen’s account and that it appeared several comments had been deleted.
He said he wasn’t certain who deleted the comments, but said some comments had to do with threads related to serial killers.
'She is just incorrect'
Pollock argued that questions about evidence seized from the apartment come down to who is more credible: Zortman or the FBI agents.
Pollock said Zortman was consistent on the witness stand, and FBI agents clearly planned to separate her from her husband to obtain consent to search the apartment.
She argued that Zortman did not know her electronics would be taken for so long and because she felt intimidated and was unfamiliar in dealing with law enforcement, did not feel she could refuse.
"If you were in her shoes, would you have said anything?" Pollock said.
But Miller, the assistant U.S. attorney, said Zortman’s testimony is "implausible."
"She is just incorrect," he said.
He argued that Zortman initially cooperated because she believed Christensen may have been involved in Ms. Zhang’s disappearance, then changed her tune — "for whatever reasons" — after he was arrested.
No action on motions
Also Tuesday, Robert Tucker, one of Christensen’s attorneys, argued that prosecutors shouldn’t have access to about 600 recordings of Christensen’s calls from jail, which Tucker said included private discussions of sex, religion, health and family.
They "pierced his mind for 18 months," Tucker said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Nelson argued that there are 30 years’ worth of unanimous case law allowing prosecutors access to jail phone calls.
U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid seemed skeptical of Tucker’s argument, at one point asking how it would hold up under a case prosecutors cited.
But Shadid did not rule on any of the motions Tuesday, saying he would do so in the next couple weeks.
Another motion previously scheduled for this week’s hearings — to suppress statements from a jail-cell informant — was withdrawn by Christensen’s lawyers.