The Poker Player and the Predator
A Heartbreaking Look at the All-too-Common Relationship Between Mental Illness and Violence
This story is a tale of violence and mental illness. But it’s not the story you usually here, the one where a horrendous crime occurs and — inevitably — we all look at “crazy” as a probable cause. After all, as the story goes, you’d have to be insane to do such a horrible thing.
No, this is a story that families with mentally ill children or siblings or moms and dads know too well, and no one else knows at all. It’s the story of a bright, successful young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who told none of her friends about her personal struggles and who met a sexual predator who took advantage of her vulnerability. Like the vast majority of severely mentally ill adults, her relationship with violence was as a not a perpetrator. Her name was Suzie Zhao.
The Life of Suzie Zhao
Suzie Zhao was born in Beijing, China on June 9, 1987. She immigrated to the United States with her mother when she was eight. Meredith Rogowski met her on a Troy, Michigan school bus when the two were in sixth grade, and the two became lifelong friends. She described young Suzie as a complicated mixture of childlike innocence and precocious maturity who loved dark comedies, unicorns, and glitter.
Suzie also loved games. In middle school, she learned a card game that changed the course of her life. She discovered poker. It wasn’t long before she was winning her schoolmates’ lunch money in the basement of her apartment complex.
After graduating from high school, she attended Northwestern University in Chicago, where, in 2010, she earned a degree in psychology. But soon after graduating, she headed to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of being a professional poker player. She spent the next ten years there, playing cash games at local casinos and often traveled between L.A. and Las Vegas for tournaments. She was an up-and-comer, having earned around $200,000 — not enough to live a life of luxury but enough to pay the bills.
Other players called her “Susie Q.” Everyone loved her. Competitors described her as an excellent player who was fun and vivacious but deadly serious about her poker game. She supposedly had a killer poker face.
Sadly, it seems Susie had a hard time showing her hand even when she was not at the poker table. Friends said Susie never expressed any vulnerability or weakness. While they had noticed some changes in her over the past few years, they were unaware of her mental health challenges. Susie’s friends now grieve not only for their lost confidante but also for the missed opportunity to support her when times were tough. “If she had told us what she was going through, what was inside her head, we would have been there for her,” said Susie’s friend Merideth.
It is excruciating for family members to helplessly witness an adult experiencing psychotic symptoms, knowing there is little they can do unless their loved one is a clear danger to themselves or someone else. The person experiencing psychosis may be unaware that anything is wrong. But Susie’s mother and stepfather had watched Susie suffer. In a statement after her daughter’s death, she said Susie had been diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago.
They tried their best. In 2015, Susie’s parents tried to have Susie involuntarily hospitalized by court order. They were unsuccessful. In 2018, they sought legal guardianship; this failed also.
The Last Days
While Susie had spent most of her adult life in Los Angeles, she moved back to Michigan to live with her parents in the summer of 2020. Covid had wrecked the poker circuit, and players struggled financially and emotionally. Those who knew Susie assumed the thirty-three-year-old’s change in living arrangements was out of financial necessity.
And that may have been part of it. But it wasn’t all. Friends had noticed that Susie had grown quieter, more subdued, more secretive. By July 2020, Susie may have been experiencing active symptoms of psychosis. Another longtime friend, Michelle Lagrou, said that Susie had called her out of the blue — the two were friends as teenagers but hadn’t been in contact for several years — a few days before her death. She was surprised but happy to hear from her.
They made plans to spend the second weekend of July together. Michelle was also going to bring along her three-year-old daughter. But the Susie she picked up was not the Susie she remembered. And it scared her.
Michelle said that things were strange before she even picked her friend up. The original plan had been for Michelle to pick Susie up at her parent’s house. But she abruptly changed the location to what Michelle described as a “shady” motel. Then she wanted to be picked up at McDonald’s across the road from the motel.
Michelle said that Susie’s behavior continued to be erratic. On Friday, July 11, she took Michelle’s car without permission for several hours. In the car the next day, Susie repeatedly rolled the car window up and down. She did the same with the music. At one point, she acted as if someone was choking her.
By this time, Michelle believed Susie was using drugs (what else could explain Susie’s behavior?) and was worried about her preschooler’s safety. Michelle eventually asked Susie to get out of the car and left her at a gas station. Susie’s mom came and picked her up. Susie was gone when she and Susie’s stepfather returned from dinner around 10:15 p.m.
It was Sunday, July 12, 2020. Susie would be dead before the sun came up.
Meeting Up with a Murderer
I wonder how Morris convinced Susie to meet up with him. It is hard to imagine Susie Zhao agreeing to meet up with sixty-year-old Jeffrey Bernard Morris under less fragile circumstances. They had both previously stayed at the same hotel, so maybe she knew him by sight. In his mugshot, he looks dirty and disheveled. A former landlady described him as “creepy;” she had recently kicked him out of the basement he had been renting from her for the past four months because of her discomfort around him.
But what you couldn’t see was much worse. Jeffrey Bernard Morris had a long and varied rap sheet dating back to a 1989 sex crime conviction. He had multiple domestic violence charges and had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence in 2009. He also had convictions for assault with intent to rob while armed, larceny, driving under the influence, drug possession, and failure to comply with sex offender reporting duties. At the time of his arrest, he was on probation for retail theft.
Phone records showed eight phone calls between the two before they met. They checked into the Sherwood Hotel at 9:26 p.m. on July 12, 2020. Security camera footage later revealed that Morris had stolen zip ties and petroleum jelly at a nearby Meijer store shortly before closing. These items were later found at the crime scene.
Susie’s badly burned body was found by a hiker on July 13 at a trailhead at the Pontiac Lake Recreation area, about six miles from the hotel. She had been bound by zip ties and had sustained severe injuries, especially to her genitals. She had also been set on fire, sustaining burns to over ninety-five percent of her body. The medical examiner testified that she suffered some of these burns while she was still alive. He was arrested ten days after the discovery of the body. He was driving west along I-275, around 30 miles from where Susie lay.
A Glimpse into Morris’ Psyche
We’ve talked about Susie Zhao’s struggle with mental illness and the possible role her psychiatric symptoms may have played in leaving her vulnerable to exploitation. But what about her killer?
We know Jeffrey Bernard Morris had deviant sexual interests. In addition to his sexually abusive history, law enforcement later found over 2,000 internet searches for violent, nonconsensual pornography. Many images were of sexual assault, bondage, and torture of Asian women. Prosecutors later argued that these were glimpses into the sexual fantasies that fueled his sadistic rape, torture, and murder of Susie Zhao.
While I have never evaluated Morris, given his criminal and internet history, it would not be surprising if he had a paraphilia known as sexual sadism. Sexual sadism disorder is hallmarked by intense sexual excitement when fantasizing about or witnessing another individual undergoing physical or psychological pain. While sexual sadism is a diagnosable disorder in the DSM-5, I have never seen it used to excuse or downplay someone’s criminal behavior in a court of law.
I suspect that’s for a couple of reasons. First, fantasies of dominance and coercion (even rape) during sex are surprisingly common among well-adjusted adults. Yet very few people ever act on these. And, for those who do, it is most often with a consenting adult, in the context of BDSM sex play or “nonconsensual consent.” Second, no matter how strong, vivid, or intense fantasies are, they do not hurt anyone. It is the choice to act on these fantasies (in this case, with a nonconsenting partner) that is illegal. I suspect Morris’ extreme sexual fantasies are like gasoline on a fire, but it takes more (narcissism, psychopathy, a lack of empathy, etc.) to get the fire started.
The Bottom Line
I had so many wishes as I researched this case. I wish Susie could have shared her mental health struggles with those who cared about her. I wish her parents had gotten the support they needed and advice that might have helped. I wish there weren’t such shame and stigma around mental illness; I don’t know what role it played in this situation, but, time and again, I’ve seen people suffer in silence. When my own dad struggled with bipolar disorder when I was growing up, I don’t remember telling a single friend about it. It just seemed like something to hide.
I wish we knew more about people like Jeffrey Bernard Morris to catch them sooner and prevent the damage they do. In a perfect world, we’d spot problems early on so we could also salvage their lives.
I get some comfort from knowing that Morris will never hurt anyone else; on November 10, 2022, he was sentenced to life without parole. I’m not sure that would help if I was Susie’s mom.
Originally published at https://joniejohnstonpsyd.substack.com on November 18, 2022.