A transient sex offender was bound over Monday to stand trial for the July slaying of an Oakland County pro poker player whose burned body was found in a state recreation area.
Jeffery Bernard Morris, 60, of Pontiac is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Susie Zhao, 33, whose body — her wrists bound with zip ties — was found July 13 near a trail head at the Pontiac Lake Recreation area.
Ronald Grinwald, a White Lake Township resident who made the initial grim discovery, testified Monday that he wasn’t sure at first if he had come across a “store mannequin or a Halloween prank.”
In a daylong preliminary examination before Judge Kelley Kostin of 52-2 District Court, assistant Oakland County prosecuting attorney Ken Frazee called a series of witnesses that put Morris and Zhao together the night before her body was discovered. Defense attorney Pamela Johnson described the case against her client as circumstantial and asked Kostin to dismiss the case, but she declined.
“I’m satisfied the prosecution has met its burden of probable cause,” Kostin said. “This strong circumstantial evidence is sufficient to meet the burden.”
Frazee called an FBI agent and White Lake Township Detective Thomas Sorasin to discuss how cell phone records revealed eight calls between Morris and Zhao in the hours leading up a meeting on July 12, when Morris rented a room at the Sherwood Motel on Dixie Highway in Waterford Township.
A motel employee told how both Morris and Zhao, known as “Susie Q” on the pro poker circuit, had both stayed there on occasion, investigators said. Zhao had recently returned from California to visit relatives in Metro Detroit.
Cell tower records also pinpointed the location of the phones used by the pair, coming together that night and to an isolated section of the recreation area. Morris’s 2008 Audi was filmed at a Meijer store where, an employee testified Monday, he is believed to have shoplifted some zip ties and petroleum jelly.
His vehicle was also captured on home security cameras driving to and from the park area and Sorasin said a review of Morris’s phone revealed he had attempted to delete all phone contacts with Zhao.
Assistant medical examiner Dr. Andrew Hanosh said an autopsy revealed Zhao had been “punched” by a human fist or other blunt object between her vagina and anus but that her cause of death was thermal burns over 90% of her body. She had inhaled soot and smoke, indicating she was still alive when set on fire.
Sorasin said Morris’s phone and internet records showed he had visited several violent pornographic websites. After a police press conference solicited clues about a vehicle seen in the area, Morris also attempted to obtain information online regarding how to remove a rear seat from an Audi, the detective testified.
Morris, who has convictions for third-degree criminal sexual conduct and misdemeanor domestic violence, was remanded to the Oakland County Jail without bond pending trial.