The Poker Player and the Predator

courtesy of friend Meredith Rogowski/Detroit Free Press

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.

Secret Struggles

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.

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Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.