On the morning of April 13, 2020 at around 8:05AM, two men walking in the Pontiac Lake State Recreation area in Oakland County, Michigan stumbled upon the charred remains of a female in a parking lot. The body was severely burned but the remains were identified using fingerprints as 33-year-old professional poker player Suzie Zhao, or Susie. Q as she was known to friends.
The victim had been bound and restrained with plastic zip ties and sexually violated with a large object before being set on fire.
Initially, police suspected Zhao’s murder may have been linked to her career as a poker player, citing that accumulated debt is often linked with gambling, however they later changed their mind and ruled out any gambling or political motivation for the murder and set to work finding her killer.
The evening before the victim’s body was found in the parking lot, her cell phone placed her at the Sherwood Hotel in Waterford Township. She had apparently checked in with a 60-year-old man named Jeffrey Bernard Morris. According to Morris the two had arrived together in the man’s vehicle and checked in at around 9:30PM.
When questioned by police Morris told them that he had picked up Susie on Watkins Lake road and drove to the hotel. He said they went out to buy alcohol after arriving at the Sherwood Hotel and returned to the room together for just a couple of hours before she left around midnight.
Cell phone records showed a different story. Although Morris claimed that Zhao had left at midnight her phone had remained in the hotel room until 5AM the following morning. Security cameras near the hotel did not catch her leaving the premises like Morris had claimed, however Morris himself was seen leaving the hotel at 5AM on the day the poker players body was found. His cell phone data showed his journey to Pontiac Lake Park, leading him right to the discovery site of the victim. Phone records and surveillance show that he was in the area for around 7 minutes total before he drove away.
Morris was arrested on July 31, 2020 after police pulled him over with a warrant. He was on bail at the time of the arrest for a previous case of retail fraud. Records show Morris is a registered tier 3 sex offender with a history of sexual assaults and violence that stretches back to the nineteen-eighties, with numerous arrests on his record. He has been on the Michigan sex offenders record since 1989. According to police he is something of a transient having no registered abode. Six months prior to his arrest, Morris had replied to an ad to rent a basement space in the area. Jjust a few weeks in his landlord evicted him, referring to him as a “creeper”. It is unknown where the suspected killer had been staying since the eviction.
An examination of the suspect’s vehicle revealed some disturbing discoveries. Along with hair samples, fibres and shoe prints on the backseat and interior roof, police found a baseball bat with dried blood as well as a blood-stained sheet from the Sherwood hotel. Reports state that Morris bound and tortured Zhao before setting her on fire while she was still alive.
Jeffrey Bernard Morris has been charged with first degree premeditated murder.
The relationship between the suspect and victim is unclear but Zhao had stayed at the hotel on several occasions. As a professional poker player, she often flew to tournaments in Vegas and LA, but had recently moved back in with her mother in Michigan as she was reportedly having issues paying her own rent back in LA despite winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournaments over the years. Friends told media outlets that she was working on some personal issues. The last sighting of Susie Zhao was at her mother’s home at 5:30PM on July 12. She did not let her mother know where she was going.
When questioned about Susie’s murder, a friend of Susie’s who had played poker alongside her displayed his disbelief: “I never thought anyone would’ve wanted to do anything to her. It’s just awful”. She was a “true gentle soul” he later tweeted.
Others expressed that they could not imagine her having enemies, remembering her positive attitude and friendly, outgoing character.