Susie Zhao Murder Trial: Poker Player was ‘Schizophrenic,’ Court Hears
The trial of a transient sex offender accused of murdering professional poker player Susie “Susie Q” Zhao got underway Monday at the Oakland County Circuit Court in Michigan.
Jeffrey Morris, 62, is charged with first-degree premeditated murder and felony murder. Prosecutors say he sexually assaulted 30-year-old Zhao before dousing her body in petroleum and setting her on fire while she was still alive.
Chief prosecutor John Skrzynski said Monday that Morris used Zhao to make his “pornographic fantasies come true and then burned her alive,” as reported by The Oakland Press.
Zhao’s burnt body was discovered by two local men at the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area in Oakland County, Mich. in July 2020.
Her wrists had been bound with zip ties. There was extensive damage to her genitals. Around 90% of the body’s surface area had been burned, according to the coroner’s report. She was identified by her fingerprints.
Zhao had recently returned to her native Michigan after a decade in California pursuing a career as a high-stakes poker player. She had net career tournament earnings of $224,671, according to the Hendon Mob Database, but she was predominantly a cash game player.
“She was a free spirit in the truest sense. She played by her own rules, followed her dreams,” friends said at a July 2020 police press conference. “Everybody loved her.
Skrzynski said Monday he believed Zhao was suffering from schizophrenia at the time of her murder, a detail previously unreported.
Morris was arrested by White Lake police and an FBI task force ten days after the discovery of the body. He was driving west along I-275, around 30 miles from where the body was found.
He sustained injuries during his arrest and was charged with murder while still in his hospital bed. He has a lengthy criminal record, including a 1989 conviction for rape.
Morris Wants ‘Vindication’
Skrzynski told the jury that cell phone evidence would be presented that showed Morris and Zhao were together in the hours leading up to her killing. He said that their phones were present near the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area at the approximate time of the murder.
Morris was also caught on security cameras allegedly shoplifting cable ties and petroleum jelly at a nearby store.
Defense lawyer Michael McCarthy will argue the evidence against his client is largely circumstantial. McCarthy said Morris had been looking forward to “his day for vindication” in court after two years in the county jail. While Zhao unquestionably suffered a “terrible death,” there were no eyewitnesses to the killing, McCarthy added.
Skrzynski says he has 17 potential witnesses.
The trial is expected to last a week.
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