(Author’s warning to readers: Some graphic and disturbing details from court testimony are included herein.)
Ongoing testimony in the murder trial of Jeffery Bernard Morris, accused of brutally killing former poker pro Susie “Susie Q” Zhao, concluded on Wednesday in a Michigan courtroom. Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Martha Anderson oversaw the second day of testimony in the case, which carried into mid-afternoon. Morris, now 62, faces two felony murder charges for the July 13, 2020 slaying of Zhao.
The last of the prosecution’s 17 witnesses appeared before the court on Wednesday, including acquaintances of Morris’s who confirmed some details regarding Morris’s whereabouts and actions in the hours surrounding Zhou’s murder. The day’s key witnesses, however, were an FBI agent specializing in cellular phone data and the White Lake Police Department detective who oversaw the initial investigation. A report on the Tuesday’s first day of testimony can be found here.
Morris’s court-appointed defender, Michael McCarthy, called no witnesses to support Morris’s not-guilty plea, nor did Morris take the stand in his own defense. Following the conclusion of Wednesday’s testimony, Judge Anderson announced that the trial would have an off day on Thursday to allow both sides’ counsel to prepare final statements. The two days of testimony saw nearly 200 pieces of evidence formally introduced into the case, adding to the need to provide extra time for counsels’ preparation.
The final statements in the case will be heard on Friday morning. After that, Judge Anderson will select the 12 jurors from a larger pool (including alternates) that heard the testimony, then send the jurors into deliberation to reach a verdict.
FBI special agent paired locations of Morris’s and Zhao’s phones
One of Wednesday’s most important witnesses was FBI Special Agent George Rienerth, a specialist in cellular-data analysis. Rienerth and the FBI were brought into their case to examine the phone records of both Morris and Zhao, who had two phones, and a Gmail account owned by Zhao that also included some location-tracking data.
Rienerth explained how he searched through thousands of pages of data records provided by service providers after a search warrant for the data had been procured. Then, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, he detailed for the court how Morris’s and Zhao’s phones came into close proximity on the evening of July 12, 2020 at the Sherwood Motel in Pontiac.
The agent then showed how data captured from cel towers serving the area then tracked Morris’s phone as he made a couple of trips late on July 12. The trips included a stop at a nearby pizza-and-party store and at the department store where Morris allegedly shoplifted zip-ties and petroleum jelly.
Of vital importance was Rienerth’s testimony showing that the cel phone owned by Morris was later tracked to the deserted forest-preserve parking lot west of Pontiac where Zhao’s bound, burned body was found the following morning. The stop tracked to Morris’s phone lasted only a few minutes, starting shortly after 2:00 a.m. on July 13. However, Rienerth noted that only Morris’s phone was present at the preserve’s lot; Zhao’s phones continued to transmit signals from the Sherwood Motel location where the two met hours earlier.
Hours later, the data cited by Rienerth showed Morris’s cel phone returning to the Sherwood Motel, again placing all three phones in close proximity. Rienerth said that the signal from one of Zhao’s phones disappeared a short time later, while the signal from the other phone continued until July 14 after returning to a location corresponding to the department store Morris had visited on July 12. Neither of Zhao’s phones was ever recovered.
White Lake PD detective testifies about Morris’s web search history
The final witness to be called was White Lake Police Department detective Thomas Sarasin. Sarasin was the responding detective to the murder scene when Zhao’s body was discovered on July 13, 2020. Sarasin explained how the area was quickly secured and how he contacted his department’s forensics team to arrive, collect, and begin processing any evidence found at the site.
Besides Zhao’s burned body, that evidence included zip-ties that were presented in court on Wednesday. A chain of two ties, partially burned, was found attached to Zhao’s left wrist, while a third zip-tie, burned and broken, was found near Zhao’s right foot. The forensics team also obtained swabs from Zhao’s body. As testified to by a DNA expert on Tuesday, at least one of those swabs was found to include Morris’s DNA. Zhao herself was identified days later from her fingerprints, which were obtained when she immigrated to the US from China at about age nine.
However, Sarasin’s testimony wasn’t limited to the recovery of evidence from the alleged murder scene. He also testified how his department had seized Morris’s phone, with another search warrant, in conjunction with Morris’s July 31, 2020 arrest.
Using a specialized software tool, Sarasin’s department was able to access virtually all of the data on Morris’s phone. The data included not only the phone and text records, but also web searches and browsing history on the phone from June 22 to July 31, 2020, when the phone was seized, and location “ping” records from July 12 to July 14, covering the span of time Zhao’s murder occurred.
Detective Sarasin, as led by prosecutors, then verified specifics of the web-browsing data captured from Morris’s phone. That data included 382 web searches from July 2 to July 29 that Morris conducted on his phone, including combinations of such terms including “Asian”, “Chinese”, “extreme”, “kidnapped”, “slave”, “brutal”, and others. Complete web-search phrases found on Morris’s phone as testified to by Sarasin included examples such as “brutal fist punching of a bound slave girl”.
In addition, Sarasin counted 1,915 web addresses that were visited by the person or persons in possession of Morris’s phone. He also described finding many photos depicting examples of the specific violent sexual act that Morris was alleged to have inflicted upon Zhao. When asked how many photos, Sarasin responded, “Too many to count.”
Sarasin also found thumbnail images on Morris’s phone, including one of a gas can and another of Zhao, as taken from a photo given by her mother to detectives as part of their investigation into their murder. The phone’s records also showed a contact created for a “Susie” on July 10, which was subsequently deleted on July 14.
Following Sarasin’s concluding testimony, Morris’s defense attorney asked for permission for all attorneys to approach the judge’s bench. The electronic feed was suspended for a short while, and the jurors may also have been removed from the courtroom while unknown matters were discussed before Judge Anderson, though possibly including a request for the Thursday off day. After that, Judge Anderson concluded the day’s proceedings and announced Friday’s resumption of the case. Morris faces life imprisonment if found guilty on either or both of the murder charges filed against him.