Trial underway two years later

More than two years after the terrifying brutal murder of popular poker pro Susie “Susie Q” Zhao, the trial of the suspect has begun in Michigan. Prosecutors have 17 witnesses they can call upon and expect the trial to be fairly quick, about a week.

The poker world was shocked in the summer of 2020 to hear of Zhao’s death and on top of it, how horrible it was. In the early morning hours of July 13, 2020, her burned body was found at the at the Pontiac State Recreation Area. It was so bad that it took almost a week for her to be identified.

On July 31, the FBI Task Force and White Lake Township Police Department arrested Jeffery Morris. The 60-year-old from Pontiac, Michigan, had a long rap sheet, including tier 3 sexual misconduct, destruction of a building, and attempted armed robbery, among others. He has been in jail since his arrest, awaiting trial.

Circumstantial evidence, but lots of it

Morris’ defense team intend to argue that all the evidence against their client is circumstantial, but it does seem like a fairly open-and-shut case for the prosecution based on what is known publicly.

Law enforcement officials have both of Zhao’s cell phones, as well as Morris’ single phone, and have put together a timeline of them together the night of her murder. The three phones (we say “phones” because it is always possible they weren’t with their owners) were at Zhao’s mother’s house at 8:50pm on July 12 and then at the Sherwood Motel at 9:35pm.

Morris’ phone left the hotel later and was at Meijer (a supercenter store chain) from about 11:00pm to 12:00am. His phone went to the park where Zhao’s body was found at 2:00am and at 5:00am July 13, all three phones were off.

Morris’ phone also revealed that he did an internet search of how to remove the backseat of an Audi, in addition to violent sexual torture of women.

Investigators found a bloody bat, bloody sheets, blood stains, and incriminating hair and fibers in Morris’ car.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence is surveillance footage from the Meijer. The video shows Morris arriving after 11:40pm, during the time period shown by the phone analysis. He is also seen stealing two packages of black zip ties and a jar of petroleum jelly.

Zhao’s wrists were bound with black zip ties. Forensic analysis has determined that she was likely sexually assaulted, bound, and burned alive.

The world lost a light

Originally from China, Susie Zhao moved to America with her parents when she was very young. Her childhood in the US was spent in Michigan before she went to Northwestern University with a degree in psychology. After college, she moved to Los Angeles, where she became well known and successful in the cash game poker scene. She also had over $200,000 in live tournament cashes. When the pandemic forced the shutdown of casinos and card rooms, Susie moved back home to Michigan.

Susie was known as a vibrant, friendly, fun person to everyone she met, with a sharp intelligence and memory to match. After her murder, Clayton Fletcher reminisced about playing against her at the 2015 WSOP, saying, “She was one of the bubbliest and most vivacious opponents I’ve ever had. She was a very strong player who also liked to have fun at the table,” adding that she was “just one of those people who make a really strong impression.”

Image credit: Facebook / Susie Zhao

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