A man accused of sexually assaulting and killing professional poker player Susie Zhao in Michigan has been bound over for trial after it was revealed during a preliminary hearing that the victim had been burned alive.
Zhao’s charred body was discovered by passersby at Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area in Oakland County on July 13.
Registered sex offender Jeffrey Morris, 60, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in early August in connection to the brutal killing of the 33-year-old Zhao, known in poker circles as ‘Susie Q.’
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Murder suspect Jeffrey Morris, 60, is pictured during a preliminary hearing in Michigan on Monday
Morris is accused of sexually assaulting and killing professional poker player Susie Zhao, 33, who was found burned in July
Graphic testimony presented during a preliminary hearing on Monday shed light on Zhao’s harrowing final moments, reported Fox 2 Detroit.
Deputy medical examiner Dr. Andrew Hanosh told the court via teleconference that Zhao’s tongue had been burned, her hair had been singed off and smoke and soot were discovered in her airways and lungs, leading to the conclusion that she was alive when she was set on fire.
Nahosh estimated that Zhao suffered burns to at least 90 per cent of her body.
An autopsy also revealed extensive damage to the victim’s genitals from having been ‘punched’ with a fist or another object. Court records previously revealed that Zhao had been restrained with zip-ties and sexually assaulted before her death.
The court also heard from one of the two men who discovered the poker player’s remains in the woods.
‘It was hard to tell if it was Halloween prank or mannequin that was burned,’ Ronald Granville said.
Two people driving through a recreation area parking lot came upon Zhao’s body
Ronald Granville said during Monday’s hearing that he initially thought Zhao’s body was a burned mannequin or a Halloween display
Deputy medical examiner Dr. Andrew Hanosh told the court that Zhao had been burned alive, based on soot and smoke found in her airways
White Lake Police Department detective Thomas Sorasin testified that phone records showed eight calls between Morris and Zhao just hours before their on July 12 meeting, according to CBS Detroit.
Both Morris and Zhao stayed at the Sherwood Motel in Waterford, and an FBI agent told the court that cellphone tower records indicated that the pair traveled from the motel to a remote part of the recreational area.
Morris’ defense attorney, Pamela Johnson, sought to have the case dismissed after downplay the evidence against her client as circumstantial.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Kelley Kostin ruled that there was sufficient evidence to send the case to trial.
A Michigan judge concluded that there was enough evidence to send the case to trial
Morris is being held without bond in jail pending his trial, which has yet to be scheduled.
Zhao was last seen alive by her mother on July 12 around 5.30pm.
Her charred body was discovered at around 8:05 a.m. the next morning by two men in the wooded parking area of the state park.
Morris has a long history of violent and sexual crimes dating back more than three decades
Cell phone records confirm Morris and Zhao met up on the night of July 12, according to newly-obtained court documents.
Morris told cops after his arrest he had picked Zhao up on Watkins Lake Road and they checked into the Sherwood Motel around 9:26 p.m. on July 12.
The suspected killer said the pair then left the motel briefly to buy alcohol at a party store before returning.
Zhao then left the motel at midnight ‘and took all of her belongings including her cell phone with her,’ Morris told cops.
However, cell phone records place Zhao’s cell phone at the motel until around 5 a.m. the following morning – the same time both cell phone records and surveillance footage captured Morris leaving the motel, the court documents show.
The suspect then drove to the remote 3,745-acre park where he stayed for around seven minutes, WXYZ reported.
Police believe Morris bound Zhao with zip-ties, sexually assaulted her with a large object before she was ‘lit on fire until she died’.
Morris was arrested on July 31 after he was pulled over in his vehicle in Ypsilanti on a warrant by officers from White Lake Township.
A search of his vehicle uncovered a fitted bed sheet with apparent blood stains and a wooden baseball bat with a possible big blood stain.
Zhao, known under the nickname ‘Susie Q,’ has been described as a ‘national talent’ on the competitive poker circuit
Several footwear impressions, hairs, fibers and other items with possible blood stains and duffel bags with Morris’ identification inside were also found in the car, court records show.
Morris has a long history of violent and sexual crimes dating back more than three decades.
Morris was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct in Oakland County Circuit Court in 1989 and has multiple domestic violence charges including pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence in 2009.
At the time of Zhao’s murder, he was on probation for retail fraud.
Zhao, who lived in Los Angeles but would regularly come back to her mom’s house in the Waterford area, has been described as a ‘national talent’ on the competitive poker circuit.
She would easily take home prizes of tens of thousands of dollars and is believed to have won $224,671 over the course of her career.