The defendant in the death of professional poker player Susie Zhao, 33, is going to trial. There is enough evidence to try Jeffery Bernard Morris, 60, for first-degree murder, 52-2 District Court Judge Kelley Kostin said Monday, according to The Detroit News. As previously revealed, the victim had been burned, but new testimony showed that she was alive when it happened.
Defense lawyer Pamela Johnson argued the case was circumstantial. Judge Kostin had no problems with that.
“I’m satisfied the prosecution has met its burden of probable cause,” Kostin said. “This strong circumstantial evidence is sufficient to meet the burden.”
Zhao, a California resident who was in Michigan to visit family, was found July 13 by a trail head of the Pontiac Lake Recreation area. She had been burned and restrained with a zip-ties.
Local man Ronald Grinwald testified to finding the body. He was not initially sure if the remains were a “store mannequin or a Halloween prank,” he said.
Assistant medical examiner Dr. Andrew Hanosh said the victim sustained thermal burns on 90-percent of her body. That she breathed in soot and smoke showed Zhao was still alive when set on fire. As previously revealed, authorities said the victim had been sexually assaulted by a large object before the burning. Hanosh said that was either a human fist, or another blunt object “punched” between her vagina and anus.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Thomas Sorasin also testified that there were eight phone calls between Zhao and Morris before the two met up the Sherwood Motel in Waterford Township. Morris rented the room, he said. An employee of the business said that both the defendant and Zhao occasionally stayed at the motel.
Morris, a sex offender found guilty in 1989 of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree, had recently been kicked out of a local home before the murder.
“He answered an ad to rent from me and I rented a basement to him for four months,” former landlord Dawn Carr told Fox 2 Detroit. “He seemed like a real creeper to me so I had to get him out of here, so I evicted him.”
Cell phone records placed the defendant’s and victim’s phone at the recreation area, authorities said. Morris’s car, a 2008 Audi, was also put at a Meijer supermarket where he allegedly shoplifted zip-ties and petroleum jelly. The defendant also allegedly tried to delete his phone contacts with the victim.
Morris is being held at the Oakland County Jail without bond.
[Mugshot of Morris via Michigan State Police; screengrab of Zhao via Live at the Bike]
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