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A Michigan judge sentenced a sex offender on Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the brutal 2020 murder of a professional poker player, court records show.

Judge Martha Anderson handed down the sentence to Jeffery Morris in Oakland County Circuit Court for the July 2020 murder of Susie Zhao, a 33-year-old professional poker player from Waterford Township, Michigan, NBC affiliate WDIV of Detroit reported.

The sentencing came a month after a jury found Morris guilty of first-degree murder and felony murder in the commission of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, according to court records.

Suzie Zhao. (White Lake Township Police Dept.)

Suzie Zhao. (White Lake Township Police Dept.)

Zhao’s body was found badly burned around 8 a.m. on July 13, 2020, near the Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area, located about 40 miles northwest of Detroit, a week before police identified her, WDIV reported.

Morris and Zhao met at the Sherwood Motel in Waterford Township, located two miles from where Zhao’s mother lived, WDIV reported.

According to the local affiliate, the motel owner said Zhao checked in on July 9, checked out July 11 and Morris checked into the same room on July 12. The owner said they never saw the two together.

Police arrested Morris on July 31, 2020, WDIV reported, adding that authorities tracked him down through Zhao’s cell phone records.

Morris has a long criminal history, including a 1989 third-degree criminal sexual conduct conviction, court records show.

Zhao, who was known as ‘Susie Q’ on the poker circuit, won at least $187,441 from poker, including $73,805 at a 2012 world series event, according to the World Series of Poker website.

“I proficiently play high stakes poker for a living. Its [sic] kinda weird because I’m a girl,” Zhao’s Twitter profile still states.

She was born in China, emigrated with her mother to the U.S. when she was around eight years old and raised in Michigan, the Oakland Press reported, adding that she was also diagnosed with schizophrenia as an adult.

During the trial, the Oakland Press reported, evidence showed Morris bound Zhao’s wrists with zip ties before dousing her with gasoline and setting her on fire while she was alive. There was also evidence of serious damage caused by sexual assault.

Prosecutors presented evidence from Morris’ cell phone record and web search histories showing searches for brutality against Asian women and slaves, and sexual encounters in remote, wooded areas like that where Zhao’s body was found, the local newspaper reported.

At the sentencing, Anderson, the judge, called the trial “one of the most agonizing” of her career, according to the Oakland Press.

“I cannot get over the brutality of this murder and the needlessness of it all,” the judge said.

“You took advantage of an individual who was fragile, and basically destroyed everything she had accomplished in her life,” the judge told Morris.

When the judge gave Morris the opportunity to speak, he declined to comment, the local outlet reported.

“This time, I’m not gonna say anything,” he said. “There’s a lot I’d like to say. This time I’m not gonna say anything — I’ll wait till I come back for an appeal and begin again.”

Meredith Rogowski, who spoke at the sentencing hearing on behalf of Zhao’s family and said she was the victim’s oldest friend, described Zhao as “equally childish and innocent as a young woman” who “found a lot of power in a deck of cards,” the Oakland Press reported.

Zhao’s murder, Rogowski said, was “a dark scar on an otherwise spectacular existence.”

“Susie’s murder caused so much pain, and her loved ones will never recover,” she said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com



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