(WXYZ) — As a successful professional poker player, Troy-native Susie Zhao seemed to be living the American dream. But those dreams were cut short when her path crossed with a convicted sex offender. Jeffrey Bernard Morris, 62, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison for the first-degree premeditated murder of Zhao.
Zhao’s closest friends did not learn until after she was killed that Zhao was struggling with Schizophrenia. They now believe that if they had known she was in such a vulnerable state, there may have been away to keep her from meeting up with the man who police say ultimately killed her.
“If this could happen to someone who was so smart and had a world class education and had friends around the world who adored her and a family that was there for her-- this could absolutely happen to anyone,” said Meredith Rogowski, Zhao’s best friend since middle school.
Zhao’s life was brutally cut short in July of 2020. That’s when the 33-year-old professional poker player’s body was found in a remote part of the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area in White Lake Township. Police say Zhao had been tied up and tortured and burned alive.
Last month, a jury convicted Morris of Zhao’s murder.
Zhao’s story starts in Troy Michigan, at the age of 8, when Zhao and her mom moved here from China.
Meredith and Michelle say Susie started playing poker in middle school, hustling classmates on the school bus.
“Poker was sort of how she experienced the American dream. She could start with really nothing and then turn that into tremendous wealth,” said Rogowski.
Zhao attended Cranbrook for high school and studied math and psychology at Northwestern University. Then she headed to Los Angeles to pursue her poker dreams, ultimately winning at least $187,000.
“It was- is- a very male dominated industry. She didn't look back or think twice about it,” said Rogowski.
Despite all her success, Susie’s friends say they started to notice changes in her demeanor.
“It was almost as if there was just a different look in her eyes,” said Rogowski.
“She acted like Susie, but just more blank or like subdued, if you will. But to me, I took it as possible drug usage,” said Zhao’s other close friend Michelle Lagrou.
In 2020, Susie moved home from L.A. That July, Michelle took Susie up north for a weekend of outdoor fun with Michelle’s 3-year-old daughter. But things were off.
“I thought I was picking her up at her mom's house in Waterford. And I ended up at what I consider to be a shady motel,” said Lagrou. “And then at that point, she wanted me to pick her up at the McDonald's across the road, which I thought was weird.”
Lagrou says all weekend Susie acted like she was on drugs.
“I had my daughter in the back seat, and she was going and unrolling the window, turning up the music, turning it down. And at one point acted as if she was being choked. And it just scared me,” said Lagrou.
Fearing for her daughter’s safety, Lagrou asked Zhao to leave.
Zhao’s mom came to pick her up and took her home. But later that night, Zhao left her mom’s house and police say Zhao got a ride with Jeffrey Morris who sexually assaulted and killed her.
Michelle and Meredith say they only learned after her death that Susie had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia. So, what looked like drugged behavior, may have actually been an episode of psychosis.
“You're making a judgment call based on things that are incorrect, and it can put people in danger. And obviously it did,” said Lagrou.
“That's why we think it's important to talk about this now, because there are still people out there who may be suffering in silence and their friends and family don't know. And because of that, they may be putting themselves at increased risk for this type of violence,” said Rogowski. “It's important for family and friends to be there, but it really falls on society collectively to do more because it shouldn't be just the responsibility of her friends, or the responsibility of her mother who doted over her. But taking care of somebody who is severely mentally ill is a full-time job. I just don't think that we currently have the capacity to support the need.”
During his trial, Morris’s attorney argued to the jury that the prosecution didn’t make their case, but the jury disagreed.
On Thursday, Oakland County Circuit Judge Martha Anderson sentenced Morris to life in prison, telling him that she can’t get over the brutality of this murder.
“He took something away that he can't bring back. I hope he thinks about that for the rest of his life,” said Lagrou. “I just think we all need to do a lot better. And this won't happen to somebody else in the future.”
“That adds a whole new level to the mourning that we've gone through because we've mourned the death of our friend. We’ve mourned the tragic way that she died. But now we also have to mourn the fact that we didn't know what she was going through,” said Rogowski.
Zhao’s friends say Susie’s mom has been absolutely devastated by her murder and is now living overseas.
Her friends say they’re going to continue to work to spread awareness about mental illness.
For more information and resources, visit the National Institute of Mental Health's website.