Pro Poker Player Was Bound, Sexually Assaulted, ‘Lit on Fire’ After Motel Meeting

Pilar Melendez
·4 mins read

Susie Zhao, the professional poker player whose charred remains were found in a remote Michigan park in July, was allegedly bound with zip ties and sexually assaulted before she was “lit on fire until she died” after meeting with a convicted sex offender, according to new court documents.

Zhao, 33, was last seen around 5:30 p.m. on July 12 by her mother, the White Lake Township Police Department previously told The Daily Beast. The next day, her “badly burned” body was discovered at around 8:05 a.m. in a parking lot near the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area, about an hour outside of Detroit.

Last week, Jeffrey Bernard Morris, 60, was charged from his hospital bed with first-degree premeditated murder. Authorities discovered the convicted sex offender allegedly met Zhao in a motel room the night before her body was found. Morris, who is homeless and has a “lengthy criminal history” is currently in jail after being denied bail.

A Pro Poker Player Was Found ‘Badly Burned.’ Was She Murdered Over Gambling?

“This is not the end of the investigation into Susie’s death but the beginning of the pursuit of justice for her and her family,” White Lake Township Detective Chris Hild said in a press conference. “We can only hope that where we are today brings some level of comfort to the healing process.”

In new court documents, first obtained by WXYZ, authorities revealed what occurred the night the pro poker player, known on the circuit as “Susie Q,” went missing.

Cell phone records indicate Morris and the rising poker star first met on July 12. In an interview with police the night of his arrest on July 31, Morris admitted to picking up Zhao on Watkins Lake Road before they both checked into the Sherwood Motel at around 9:26 p.m.

Friends of Susie Zhao/Oakland County Jail
Friends of Susie Zhao/Oakland County Jail

Morris told investigators the pair left the motel at some point to buy some alcohol and that Zhao left the motel at around midnight and took everything with her. Cell phone records, however, show the 33-year-old’s phone didn’t leave the motel until around 5 a.m on July 13, according to the court documents. Surveillance footage near the motel and cell phone records also show Morris left the room at around 5 a.m., before driving to a secluded section of the Pontiac Lake Recreation area—where Zhao was found.

Court documents say that evidence suggests Morris was at the 3,745-acre park for about seven minutes.

When Zhao was found the following morning, she was identified by fingerprints and was bound with zip ties. She had been sexually assaulted with a large object before being "lit on fire until she died,” the court documents state.

A spokesperson for the Oakland County Medical Examiner told The Daily Beast that Zhao’s cause of death is currently unknown, pending an autopsy and toxicology results.

When authorities pulled Morris over on a warrant in Ypsilanti weeks later, investigators found several hairs and other evidence with possible bloodstains. They also found duffle bags with a fitted bed sheet that appeared to have blood on it and a wooden baseball bat that also appeared to have a bloodstain. The items were taken to Oakland County Crime Lab for testing.

Authorities are now scrambling to understand the motive behind the “mysterious death” that occurred just weeks after Zhao moved back to her home state of Michigan from California on June 9.

Two childhood friends of Zhao previously told The Daily Beast that the poker player bounced between several cities—including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Florida—both for her job and because she was “a jet-setter.”

According to PokerNews.com, Zhao was successful in the professional worker world, garnering several deep runs in the World Series of Poker Main Event—placing 90th in 2012 to earn $73,805. Over the course of her career, Zhao won $224,671, according to the poker database The Hendon Mob. Despite earlier speculation, authorities have said there is no evidence that Zhao’s death was connected to her gambling.

“I don’t think there was ever anything else that she wanted to do. She was playing poker from a very young age,” Meredith Rogowski, a childhood friend, told The Daily Beast. “It was not a surprise. She was very bold and did whatever she wanted to do. Whenever we talked about her job, she was very nonchalant. But I do know it was exhausting to be in that world—it was long hours and some of the people she met weren’t always genuine.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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