A Sept. 7 trial date has been set for Jeffery Bernard Morris, the Michigan man accused of violently murdering well-known Michigan and West Coast poker player Susie Zhao last year.
Morris was arrested on July 31, 2020, weeks after “Susie Q” Zhao’s bound and burned body was discovered by passersby in the parking lot of a remote wildlife refuge in Oakland County’s Waterford Township. Investigators were able to link Zhao to Morris and determined that the murder took place after the pair met up at a hotel near Pontiac, Michigan.
Morris was charged with first-degree murder soon after his arrest. An additional felony murder charge was added later due to the extremely violent nature of the crime, after forensic examination established that Zhao had been sexually assaulted before her murder. Investigators determined that Zhao had still been alive at the time her body, already bound with zip ties, had been dumped in the remote parking area, doused with gasoline, and set ablaze.
Morris, 61, was re-arraigned in Oakland County (Michigan) Circuit Court on Thursday, April 15, where his case was transferred after its initial filing in a lower district court last year.
Final pretrial hearing in August
Several additional legal steps occupied last week’s scheduling of a formal trial date for Morris. A pre-trial conference date of Aug. 11 has also been scheduled, allowing for the possibility of a plea deal to be reached.
Authorities have also added a “four strikes” rider to the charges facing Morris, who has a lengthy criminal record, including previous convictions for violent acts. With at least three felony convictions already on his record in Michigan, Morris will be sentenced as a fourth-strike offender if found (or if he pleas) guilty. That rider carries a mandatory 25-year prison term.
The sentence rider means that Morris, who has been held without bond since his arrest, almost certainly will spend the rest of his life beyond bars. Michigan is not a death-penalty state, having banned that form of punishment in the 1960s.
Zhao murdered only weeks after returning to Michigan
Zhao disappeared in late June 2020, just weeks after returning to the Pontiac area to live with her parents following a downturn in her poker fortunes on the West Coast. Within days of her disappearance, authorities identified her remains and used cell phone tracking data and security camera footage to conclusively link her to Morris on the night of her murder.
Zhao’s first poker success came in Michigan, though she moved west to play poker full time, living and playing in California. Zhao was primarily a cash-game player, though she played tourneys as well; she cashed three times in the World Series of Poker Main Event during her career. Her deepest run in that event came in 2012 when she placed 90th for a career-best $73,805 payday.