WHITE LAKE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Police in Michigan are working with the FBI to determine who killed a professional poker player and left her charred remains in a recreation area outside of Detroit earlier this month.
Susie Zhao, 33, of Waterford Township, was found badly burned the morning of July 13 in a parking area at the Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area. The 3,745-acre park is about 45 miles northwest of downtown Detroit.
Authorities have not said how Zhao, who went by “Susie Q” in the poker world, was killed.
“We have to determine whether or not this is a cover up, or this may be some sort of retaliatory incident because of her profession,” Hild said, according to the Free Press.
The FBI is aiding the investigation in a support role, offering technical and other assistance, CNN reported.
“We will make any and all of our resources available to WLPD for as long as they are needed,” Special Agent Mara Schneider told the network.
The newspaper reported that Zhao, who used to live in Los Angeles, had moved back to Michigan June 9 to live with her family. Friends who gathered outside the White Lake Township Police Department last week for a news conference said Zhao began playing poker while growing up in Troy.
“She was a free spirit in the truest sense,” friend Meridith Rogowski said, according to WXYZ in Detroit. “She played by her own rules. She followed her dreams. Absolutely brilliant.”
Zhao was well-liked by her peers, her friends said.
“Everybody loved her,” Michelle Lagrou said. “Nobody ever remembers her fighting with anybody ever. No conflict, no drama.”
The news station reported that Zhao was last seen alive by her mother about 15 hours before her body was found. Investigators believe her death is either tied to her career or linked to someone she may have met since returning to Michigan last month.
Friends said she kept details of her personal life private. Police are seeking help from anyone who saw or had contact with Zhao between July 11 and July 13.
In the professional world, Zhao had moderate success as a poker player. The Hendon Mob, which describes itself as the largest live poker database, shows Zhao raking in more than $220,000 over the span of her career.
According to her player profile on the World Series of Poker website, she had won more than $152,000 in six WSOP events over the past several years. She had won another $34,589 on the circuit, the website said.
“I prance like a unicorn in a sea of horses,” Zhao’s Twitter bio read. “I proficiently play high stakes poker for a living. It’s kinda weird because I’m a girl.”
In 2012, Zhao was one of five women to make it into the top 150 at the World Series of Poker Main Event. The game was covered by ESPN.
Zhao finished 90th in the event, taking home just under $74,000. The Hendon Mob lists that pot as her largest from a single event.
In a video from 2017, Zhao is seen winning a total of $16,000 at the Bicycle Hotel and Casino in Bell Gardens, California.
Clayton Fletcher, a former opponent of Zhao’s, remembered her on Twitter as a very strong player who liked to have fun at the table.
“She was one of the bubbliest and most vivacious opponents I’ve ever had,” Fletcher tweeted along with a story about Zhao’s death. “I’m heartbroken reading this.”
Zhao’s sense of humor could be seen in her bio on the WSOP website. She listed her pet as a turtle named Ninja.
“Will play anyone at high-stakes rock, paper, scissors,” the bio stated.
Allen Kessler, a longtime poker friend of Zhao’s, also tweeted about the loss.
“Only 33 years old. So tragic,” Kessler wrote. “We were just chatting the other day on Facebook messenger about coping with the quarantine.
“Rest in peace, Susie.”
Zhao’s friends at home in Michigan were stunned by her death.
“I can’t even think how somebody could do that,” Lagrou said.
On Facebook, Rogowski wrote that the world lost a “true legend.”
“Susie Q Zhou brightened the lives of all who crossed her path,” Rogowski wrote. “Let’s all remember Susie for her audacious, fun-loving spirit and not this horrific tragedy.”
Friends and former classmates recalled her as a bright and kind soul.
“I sat next to her in a couple of middle school classes,” Thomas Santini wrote. “Not many people were nice to me in seventh grade, but Susie always was.”
Kinga Wierzbicka wrote that Zhao’s aura and memory would forever be with her.
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