Warning: The following article contains graphic details involving murder and sexual assault.
The final day of testimony in the trial for accused Susie Zhao murderer Jeffery Bernard Morris wrapped up on Wednesday, Oct. 5 after statements from several investigators and witnesses.
Morris, 62, faces two felony murder charges in Michigan’s Oakland County Circuit Court for the July 2020 killing of Zhao, a poker player who was a regular in the Los Angeles cash game scene. Prosecutors allege that Morris “used Zhao to make his violent fantasies come true” by sexually assaulting and burning her alive.
Day 3 of the trial in the graphic case featured testimony from the prosecution’s remaining witnesses, including the two men who found Zhao’s mutilated body and a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent assigned to the case.
Finding Zhao’s Body
Two White Lake, Michigan residents, Ronald Groeneveld and Daniel Knoblock, told the court that they were driving to work on July 13 through Pontiac Lake Recreation Area when they noticed what they thought might be a burnt mannequin in a parking lot.
After discovering what ended up being Zhao’s body, the two men contacted the police, who proceeded to the crime scene and collected evidence. One detective who responded to the call testified that “upwind of the body, there was a faint odor of gasoline.”
The detective further testified that, after linking Morris to Zhao through cell phone data, the investigators secured a search warrant for the contents of Morris’ iPhone, which revealed nearly 2,000 web searches for violent sexual assault and pornography in the month ahead of the murder, including searches for sexual assault in a park or public place.
Defense attorney Michael McCarthy asked about cigarette butts found at the scene, which the detective noted belonged “to neither the suspect or the victim.”
Cell Phone Data Links Morris to Zhao
FBI Special Agent George Rienerth, who the White Lake Police Department asked to assist with the investigation, testified on Wednesday that cell phone data linked Morris’ phone and Zhao’s two phones together at the Sherwood Motel the evening of July 12, 2020.
Prosecutors believe Morris talked Zhao into being zip-tied and drove her to Pontiac Lake Recreation Area, where he assaulted her before “sprink(ling) the gas can over her and … light(ing) her on fire while she’s still alive.”
The cellular data showed Morris’ phone moving “towards the body location” in the early hours of July 13 and Zhao’s phones “remaining in the area of the Sherwood” until 5 a.m. Around 5:20 a.m., Morris and Zhao’s phones left the motel at the same time and Zhao’s phones went offline, according to Rienerth’s testimony.
What’s To Come
Also on Wednesday, the court heard from an acquaintance of Morris who Morris gave a ride to shortly after the murder and a vehicle expert who identified the make and model of Morris’ car from home surveillance footage near the crime scene.
While the trial was initially slated to take place every day this week, the defense and prosecution both rested their cases on Wednesday and Judge Martha Anderson instructed the court to take an off day on Oct. 6.
The court will reconvene on Oct. 7 at 9 a.m. local time as the jurors hear closing arguments ahead of jury deliberations.
Those in the poker community who were close with Zhao, who played and appeared on the Live at the Bike stream at the Bicycle Casino and made multiple deep runs in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, include Bart Hanson, Xuan Liu, Allen Kessler, Ronnie Bardah and Brandon Shack-Harris.
Images courtesy of Oakland County Circuit Court