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Murder and Mental Illness

A poker player, a predator, and the odds of mental illness leading to violence.

Key points

  • Thirty-three year old Susie Zhao was a beloved poker player, friend and daughter.
  • She was well known for her "poker face." But she tended to keep her feelings and personal battles to herself even away from the poker table.
  • Few knew she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was exepriencing symptoms when she met Jeffrey Bernard Morris, who would kill her.
used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

This story is not the typical tale of violence and mental illness, in which a murder immediately invokes speculation about the perpetrator's mental health. 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 victim, not a perpetrator. Her name was Susie Zhao.

The Life of Susie Zhao

Susie Zhao was born in Beijing, China, on June 9, 1987. She immigrated to the United States with her mother when she was eight. Even as a young child, Susie loved games. But it was in middle school that 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.

In 2010, after graduating from college with a psychology degree, 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. She supposedly had a killer poker face.

Sadly, it seems it was tough for her to show her hand even when she was not at the poker table. Friends said Susie never expressed any vulnerability or weakness. While they had noticed her getting quieter and more subdued over the past few years, they were completely unaware of her mental health challenges.

But Susie's parents knew. They had watched Susie suffer. In a statement after her daughter's death, her mother 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.

By July 2020, Susie may have been experiencing active symptoms of psychosis. A 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. The two 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. She changed their meeting place three times. 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 Jeffrey Bernard Morris convinced Susie to meet up with him. It is hard to imagine Susie Zhao agreeing to meet up with sixty-year-old 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. Morris 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 to 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.

References

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