McCreary prison
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URBANA — The murderer of visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang may spend the rest of his life at a high-security federal prison in eastern Kentucky.

Brendt Christensen, 30, is now listed as an inmate at the McCreary penitentiary in southeastern Kentucky, just north of the Tennessee border.

Christensen had been locked up at the Livingston County Jail until mid-October, when he was moved to the Oklahoma City federal transfer center.

He’ll be joined by 1,335 other male inmates and 378 employees at McCreary.

That’s where Brendt Christensen’s “lonely, isolated and cold deathbed” may be, as U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid put it when Christensen was sentenced in July to life in prison.

He was found guilty of kidnapping Ms. Zhang in June 2017 while she waited at a bus stop in Urbana, taking her back to his apartment and brutally killing her.

After a jury was unable to unanimously agree to sentence Christensen to death, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

“The mercy extended to you by the jury is a testament to their humanity, not your character,” Shadid said in July. “In effect the failure to reach a unanimous decision is actually a death sentence, but a natural death as opposed to the death you imposed on Yingying Zhang.”

The McCreary prison opened in 2004 and has inmates ranging in age from 20 to 86.

The average stay for inmates there is nearly 16 years.

Inmates at McCreary have a 6 a.m. wake-up call and have to be at work by 7:45 a.m. Inmates can’t leave their cells after 10 p.m., according to the inmate orientation handbook.

Work assignments include food service, facility maintenance, janitors, landscape maintenance, clerical duties and a recycling program, according to an audit of the facility this year.

“Recreational programs offered include team and individual sports activities, hobby craft, wellness instruction and TV viewing,” according to the audit. “The recreation areas/yards are very large.”

His personal belongings will be limited to what can fit in a locker and under his bed, and he’ll be limited to spending $320 per month in the prison commissary.

While Christensen’s attorneys had asked that Christensen be assigned to the high-security federal prison in Tucson, Ariz., near where his ex-wife now lives, Shadid left it up to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Bureau of Prisons has a points-based system for determining where to send prisoners, and for Christensen’s crimes, he was expected to serve his time at a high-security facility.

In addition to kidnapping and killing Ms. Zhang, Christensen was convicted of two counts of lying to FBI agents as they searched for her.

Despite intense search efforts, investigators have not been able to find Ms. Zhang’s body.

Under an immunity agreement, Christensen told his lawyers that he put her body in separate garbage bags and placed those in dumpsters outside his apartment.

If true, those garbage bags would’ve been taken to a landfill in Vermilion County, where they would’ve been compacted at least twice.



Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).

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