Top Stories of 2022, #8: Poker Community Finally Sees Justice for Susie Zhao

Susie Zhao

Warning: The following article contains graphic details involving murder and sexual assault.

While many of the biggest poker stories of 2022 were happy ones, including the triumphant return of live poker and online poker expansion across North America, the year was also marked by tragedy.

No poker story in recent years has been as tragic as the 2020 murder of Susie "Susie Q" Zhao, a Los Angeles-based pro who made several deep runs in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.

Two years later, the story received a new and final chapter as Jeffery Bernard Morris finally stood trial for the graphic and disturbing murder and, after being found guilty, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Long-Awaited Justice

In July 2020, Michigan police discovered Zhao's badly burned body in a state recreation area and in the coming weeks arrested Morris, a convicted sex offender with a violent criminal history.

Zhao, who grew up in Michigan after migrating from China at a young age, had moved back to Michigan from LA to live with family during the pandemic.

Susie Zhao
Susie Zhao

According to prosecutors, Zhao, who had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia (something revealed during the trial), had met up with Morris at a Michigan motel before he bound her with zip ties, drove her to a remote area and sexually assaulted and "lit (her) on fire until she died."

In September 2020, Morris was charged with first-degree premeditated murder in Clarkston’s 52nd District Court, though the case was later transferred to the higher Oakland County Circuit Court. Morris was initially slated to stand trial in March 2021, but that date was pushed back due to coronavirus-related restrictions at the courthouse, the first of many delays in the trial.

The trial was pushed back several more times in 2022 due to changes in counsel, a filing error and additional COVID-19 restrictions. After two years of delays, Morris finally stood trial in October 2022.

Jeffery Bernard Morris stood trial in October 2022

Zhao's Love of Poker Highlighted During Trial

During the week-long trial, Oakland County prosecutors built a robust case against Morris that drew from eyewitness testimony, cell phone data and medical reports to connect Morris to Zhao at the time of the murder.

Morris' search history revealed that he had searched for violent "punch-fisting" pornography more than 2,000 times, while a medical examination showed Zhao sustained a "significant deep wound" in her genital area that was made by "a significant force."

The trial also brought to light new information about Zhao's struggles with mental illness, which lead prosecutor John Skrzynski argued made her a vulnerable victim.

“You took advantage of an individual who was fragile and basically destroyed everything that she had accomplished in her life," Judge Martha Anderson told Morris during sentencing.

Jeffery Bernard Morris
Jeffery Bernard Morris

Susie Zhao Murder Trial Timeline:
Day 1: Jury selection, opening statements
Day 2: First day of witness testimony
Day 3: Second day of witness testimony
Day 4: Closing statements; Jury finds Morris guilty
Day 5: Morris sentenced to life without parole

But there were also touching moments during the largely horrific proceedings. Ahead of sentencing, Zhao's childhood friend, Meredith Rogowski, recalled meeting Zhao in 6th grade and forming "a friendship that significantly shaped the course of my life.”

Rogowski told the court about Zhao's vibrant personality, passion for glitter and unicorns and her deep love of poker, which she discovered in middle school and "organically absorbed it into her identity.”

“After school, she would routinely meet other kids in the basement of the apartment complex and win their allowance," said Rogowski. “(Zhao) liked that it was a boy’s game and with her natural charisma, mathematical aptitude and skill for reading others, she found a lot of power in a deck of cards.”

“Poker was how Susie discovered the American Dream. Poker enabled her to turn nothing into tremendous wealth. And this was freedom.”

Read about the sentencing of Jeffery Morris

Covering Tragedy

Zhao's horrific death and Morris' trial were both covered by national news publications and poker outlets alike, including PokerNews. Veteran poker writer Jennifer Newell covered the trial for Tight Poker and tweeted live updates throughout the proceedings, keeping friends of Zhao consistently updated as they awaited justice.

PokerNews asked Newell how she first began covering Zhao's death and what she learned about "Susie Q" throughout her coverage of the gruesome case.

PokerNews: When did you first hear the name Susie Zhao and when did you start reporting on this case?

Jennifer Newell: I had heard about Susie Q in passing, as I had heard of so many poker players. But when the Detroit news media first reported her death in July 2020, I immediately started reading comments from poker players on social media and asking friends about her. Hearing what happened to her made me want to write about it with care and sensitivity and tell the story that she was not able to tell.

Susie had many friends in the poker community and seemed to make a strong impression on players. How would you describe Susie and what was her overall reputation in the poker community?

In two years of scouring the internet for photos and stories about Susie, I never came across a person who thought negatively of her. Her friends told me how sweet she was, how funny and fun, how smart and gifted, and how much she loved her friends, family, and poker. She loved the game, the challenges it presented, and the mental stimulation. And she appeared to have loved so many people she met along her poker journey.

You spent a lot of time covering the graphic and disturbing trial. What was your biggest takeaway from the trial?

My biggest takeaway was that I wish I had known Susie. The darkest takeaway was that the person who stole her from this world is pure evil; I'm still so deeply disturbed at the pictures and facts presented at trial. I also realized that a friend or family member with a mental illness can seem out of reach and the illness too complicated to grasp, but we need to research and look into these tough subjects, especially when they affect someone we love.

How do you think Susie would want to be remembered and what can those in the poker community do to honor and remember her?

I truly cannot speak for Susie. Personally, I'd like people to remember her as her friends described her - funny, smart, kind, loving, and adventurous. Check out her Twitter or Instagram accounts to get to know her a little. I'd love for the poker community to honor her memory by learning more about mental illness and reaching out to people they know who might be struggling. Work to prevent rape, sexual assault, and harassment; believe and support victims of these crimes. Let's try to make a better, safer world.

Remembering Susie

Zhao's loving nature and bright personality earned her plenty of friends in the poker community, among them Bart Hanson, David Tuchman, Xuan Liu and Allen Kessler.

Here are a few tweets from poker players who knew "Susie Q."

  • The poker community getting justice for the murder of Susie Zhao was one of the Top Stories of 2022.

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Editor & Live Reporter U.S.

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