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Convicted Sex Offender Found Guilty Of Rape And Murder Of Professional Poker Player
Susie Zhao was found in the parking lot of a secluded Michigan park after someone bound her with zip ties, committed a brutal sexual assault, and proceeded to set her on fire.
A convicted sex offender was found guilty of the brutal rape and murder of a woman found dead in a Michigan parking lot.
Jeffery Morris, 62, was convicted on Friday of the 2020 murder of professional poker player Susie Zhao, 33, who was bound, raped and burned to death before passersby found her body in the parking lot of a secluded park in White Lake — about 40 miles northwest of Detroit.
Morris was found guilty as charged with first-degree murder as well as felony murder by an Oakland County jury because the defendant killed Zhao during the commission of criminal sexual conduct, according to The Oakland Press. Records show Morris is a homeless registered sex offender who’d once been convicted for a 1989 rape in Pontiac, Michigan.
Zhao lived in Los Angeles and had already established herself as a career poker player. According to the Press, she lived with schizophrenia and had relocated to her home state of Michigan, moving in with her mother and stepfather in Waterford Township shortly before the murder.
She allegedly split her time between her family home and the nearby Sherwood Motel in Waterford, according to the Mercury News.
Cell phone data from both parties’ phones placed Morris and Zhao at the Sherwood Motel on July 12, 2020. By Morris’s account, he picked Zhao up before the pair checked into the $50-a-night motel at around 9:30 p.m. Morris alleged they both left to buy alcohol before returning, staying until about 5:00 a.m. — though this would later be refuted.
Oakland County lead prosecutor John Skrzynski referred to Morris as “a killer and a liar, a liar and a murderer, a liar and a pervert,” according to the Press.
Zhao’s burnt body was found the next day at the Pontiac Lake State Recreation Park by two men passing the area, according to Fox Detroit affiliate WJBK. The victim was zip-tied, raped with a large object and "lit on fire until she died," according to court records obtained by ABC Detroit affiliate WXYZ. Per the Press, gasoline was used as an accelerant.
A baseball bat with blood on it and a bloody fitted sheet would be found with Morris when he was arrested days later.
During a preliminary hearing, Dr. Andrew Hanosh testified Zhao was “extensively burned” on an estimated 90% of her body’s surface, causing her hair to be singed off and her tongue to be burned, according to WJBK. Soot found in her airway indicated she was still alive when set ablaze.
There was also extensive trauma to the victim’s genitals.
The trial began on Oct. 3 before Oakland County Judge Martha Anderson, where prosecutors largely focused on Morris’ internet searches and thousands of photos found on his phone, including graphic pornographic images depicting bondage and violence against Asian women in sexual enslavement, according to the Press. Many of the photographs showed such sexual incidents taking place in secluded, wooded areas, not much different from the circumstances surrounding Zhao’s murder.
During his opening arguments, Skrzynski said Morris used Zhao’s vulnerability to live out his “pornographic fantasies,” according to the Mercury News.
In Friday’s closing arguments, Skrzynski stated Morris’ notion of sex “is violence, is death, is inflicting pain,” according to the Press. “It’s cruel.”
Cell phone data placed Morris and Zhao’s phones at the motel and traveling together to the parking lot where Zhao’s body was found. On top of that, the owner of a Waterford gas station testified he sold Morris a gas can with gasoline shortly before Zhao’s murder, similar to one found melted under Zhao’s body.
Prosecutors said video surveillance showed the defendant also stealing from a supermarket, taking items that appeared to be zip ties and petroleum jelly just before midnight on July 12, 2020, according to the Press. A home surveillance camera also showed a vehicle — which prosecutors said was Morris’ car — passing at around 2:00 a.m., just half a mile from where Zhao’s body was discovered.
The home surveillance also showed the vehicle in question returning about seven minutes later, something Morris’ public defender, Michael McCarthy, said proved his client wasn’t responsible, indicating it would have taken Morris more than seven minutes to execute the assault and murder, per the Press.
Ultimately, the jury disagreed.
Morris’ formal sentencing hearing is scheduled for Nov. 10. He faces a mandatory life sentence in prison.