A Michigan man is now facing a mandatory life sentence for the brutal sexual assault and murder of former professional poker player Susie Zhao in 2020.
Jeffery Morris, 62, was found guilty after a deliberation that lasted less than an hour in Oakland County, Michigan, on Friday, according to The Oakland Press. Morris, who was convicted of first-degree murder, was also convicted of felony murder, with the latter being second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
During the trial, which started on Oct. 3, prosecutors argued that Morris carried out “a depraved sexual fantasy” by assaulting and murdering 33-year-old Zhao, also known as “Susie Q.” A resident found her charred corpse near the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area in White Lake Township, Michigan, on July 13, 2020.
According to investigators, they found several searches for violent sex on Morris’ phone, while prosecutors noted in court before Oakland County Circuit Judge Martha Anderson that his phone contained images depicting violence against Asian women and sexual encounters in wooded areas.
Prosecutors also presented evidence showing signs that Zhao was zip-tied before being set on fire while she was still alive, as well as evidence that she sustained serious damage to her genital area.
Addressing the jury during the closing argument, lead prosecutor John Skrzynski said that in Morris’ eyes, sex “is violence, is death, is inflicting pain, it’s cruel. He’s a killer and a liar, a liar and a murderer, a liar and a pervert.”
Investigators connected Morris to the murder after tracking both his and Zhao’s phones’ locations. The two were reportedly together hours before the killing. Investigators also took note of Zhao’s movement from her parents’ home to a room Morris had booked in Sherwood Motel in Waterford, Michigan.
FBI agent George Rienerth noted in his testimony that Morris and Zhao had previously contacted each other and that they were using the same Sherwood Motel room but at different times.
In Skrzynski and assistant prosecutor Brandon Barlog’s case against Morris, they presented a laboratory analysis from Zhao’s autopsy pointing out a melted object made of polyurethane found under the woman’s body. The report noted that the object was similar to the gas can Morris purportedly bought from a gas station along with gasoline before Zhao’s death.
Skrzynski and Barlog also presented video footage of Morris suggesting that the man stole zip ties and possibly petroleum jelly from a Meijer store before midnight on July 12, 2020.
A security camera from a residence around half a mile away from the scene of the crime captured Morris’ car after 2 a.m. the following day. Around seven and a half minutes later, he was caught again on the same camera again driving in the opposite direction.
Although Michael McCarthy, Morris’ court-appointed attorney, acknowledged the “horrific crime” that happened to Zhao, he noted the lack of investigation regarding tire tracks from the murder scene, as well as the DNA of “another male” found during Zhao’s autopsy.
McCarthy also questioned the argument that Morris committed both assault and murder in less than seven minutes.
Morris, who is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 10, was arrested on July 31, 2020. Upon his arrest, authorities learned that the homeless convicted sex offender has been in Michigan’s public registry since 1989 — under several offender searches — with a lifetime registration.
Zhao, who was previously diagnosed with schizophrenia, was raised in Oakland County after immigrating to the United States from China when she was 9 years old. Before her death, she moved to Michigan from California and lived part-time with her mother and stepfather in Waterford Township, where she purportedly visited a motel often.
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