Michigan Judge Susie Zhao sentenced the man who tortured, raped and burned to death professional poker player Susie Zhao to life imprisonment without parole.
Jeffery Morris, 62, a transient sex offender, was convicted in October of first-degree murder and felony murder in the commission of criminal sexual conduct, for murdering Zhao, 33,
Morris was found guilty by a jury after a short trial.
Judge Martha Anderson said to Morris last week that she was attending his sentencing hearing. “I cannot get over the brutality of this murder and the needlessness of it all.” She said presiding over the trial and hearing the grisly details of Zhao’s killing was “agonizing.”
“You took advantage of an individual who was fragile and basically destroyed everything she had accomplished in her life,” the judge told Morris.
In July 2020, Zhao’s body was found in a remote section of Michigan’s Pontiac Lake Recreation Area in White Lake Township. Police say Zhao had been tied up, tortured and burned alive.
The successful poker player had moved back to Michigan from Los Angeles to be near her mother and father. Trial testimony showed Zhao had been recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, something her friends said they did not know.
After meeting up with Morris at a motel she sometimes stayed at, he bound her with zip ties and sexually assaulted her so fiercely that her reproductive organs were damaged, authorities said. He doused her with gasoline and set her on fire while she was still alive, a coroner found.
Her body was discovered the next day by two passers-by who told investigators the remains were so damaged and burned they initially thought they were looking at a Halloween prank, authorities said.
Longtime friend Meredith Rogowski testified at the sentencing hearing that Zhao was an “equally childish and innocent” woman who “found a lot of power in a deck of cards,” she said.
“Susie’s murder caused so much pain, and her loved ones will never recover,” Rogowski told the court.
Zhao and her mother had emigrated from China when Zhao was 8. Even as a child, she loved playing cards and would demonstrate her sharp skills on the school bus, friends testified.
Known as “Susie Q” on the poker circuit, she had collected $187,441 in winnings, including $73,805 at a 2012 World Series event, according to the World Series of Poker website.
“What happened to her was just so unkind, so brutal and needless,” said prosecutor John Skrzynski.