WHITE LAKE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — A transient registered sex offender has been charged in the brutal death of professional poker player Susie Zhao, whose charred body was found July 13 in a remote area of Michigan’s Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area.
Jeffery Bernard Morris, 60, whose last known address was in Pontiac, is charged with first-degree murder in the 33-year-old Zhao’s killing. He is being held without bond in the Oakland County Jail due to the severity of the crime and his prior criminal history, White Lake Township police Lt. Chris Hild told reporters Wednesday.
“This is not the end. It’s rather the beginning in the pursuit of justice for Susie and her family,” Hild said.
Zhao, 33, of Waterford Township, was found badly burned the morning of July 13 in a parking area at the recreation area. The 3,745-acre park is about 45 miles northwest of downtown Detroit.
Details of Morris’ extensive criminal history were not immediately available Friday, but the Michigan Public Sex Offender Registry states he has been registered since May 1989. The conviction for which he was required to register was third-degree criminal sexual conduct using force or coercion.
In the days after Zhao’s death, there was widespread speculation that Zhao’s poker playing may have been a factor in her killing. Hild said Wednesday that the preliminary investigation has shown no evidence of a link.
“Obviously, we’re still looking at that, but it doesn’t appear to be the case,” Hild said at a news conference.
Watch the entire news conference below, courtesy of WXYZ in Detroit.
No motive for the crime had been established, according to the lieutenant. Hild said authorities were trying to determine if Zhao knew Morris prior to the homicide and, if so, how long they had known one another.
The pair apparently crossed paths at the Sherwood Motel in Waterford Township, a couple of miles from the home of Zhao’s mother. The victim, described as a carefree spirit by friends, had returned home to Michigan from Los Angeles in June, about a month before her death, to live with her mother.
She was a familiar face at the motel, however.
“It appears that she stayed there quite frequently,” Hiln said. “Mr. Morris, there’s reason to believe that he lived with several different people in the Pontiac area prior to this incident. It’s our understanding that he was out and about, (with a) homeless status, at the time this occurred.”
According to WDIV in Detroit, the motel owner told detectives Zhao checked into a room on July 9 and checked out July 11. Morris checked into the same room the following day, July 12.
The owner never saw the pair together. Zhao’s burned remains were found the day after Morris checked into the motel room.
Hild declined to say if there were signs of a struggle in the motel room. He also declined to say if Zhao was still alive when she was set on fire.
“I wouldn’t want to comment on the evidence we have at this time,” the lieutenant said. “It’s an ongoing investigation and Mr. Morris is due to a fair trial.
“At this point in time, it would be premature to release that information.”
Hild could not say if Zhao was sexually assaulted, saying that the department was still awaiting the medical examiner’s report.
“It’s a complicated case,” he said.
Hild also declined to offer details of Morris’ brief interview with detectives. When the investigators attempted a second interview, the suspect refused to speak further about the case.
MLive reported that police obtained search warrants in the case last week and began to search for a suspect vehicle. The vehicle was located by detectives and an FBI task force last Friday.
Watch Zhao play, and win, at poker in a clip from the Bicycle Hotel and Casino.
The state sex offender registry, last updated in December, shows Morris possessing a silver 2014 Ford Escape. I was not clear if that was the vehicle being sought by police.
Morris was hospitalized for an undisclosed illness following his arrest, but Hild declined to say why out of concern for his right to privacy as a medical patient. He was arraigned from his hospital bed on Tuesday and remained in the hospital at the time of Wednesday’s news conference.
Hild told reporters that detectives were trying to determine why Zhao and Morris might have met at the motel. Unnamed law enforcement sources told WDIV that Morris’ phone number was among the contacts listed in Zhao’s cellphone.
Morris’ name came up in the investigation after detectives received information pointing to his potential involvement.
“We canvassed the area, talking to neighbors, talking to residents in Waterford, talking to residents in White Lake,” Hild said. “I appreciate their cooperation in this case. We’re still asking for additional information in that respect.”