FBI Special Agent George Rienerth, a specialist in cellular-data analysis, testified in the murder trial of Jeffery Bernard Morris, accused of killing former poker pro Susie “Susie Q” Zhao. Rienerth showed how the data from the towers was used to track Morris’s phone as he traveled late on July 12. The body of Zhao was found the following morning.
There are some graphic and disturbing details from court testimony included in the author’s warning.
Jeffery Bernard Morris’s murder trial, in which he is accused of brutally killing former poker pro Susie “Susie Q” Zhao, ended on Wednesday in a Michigan courtroom. The second day of testimony in the case was presided over by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Martha Anderson. Morris was indicted on two felony murder charges for the July 13, 2020 killing of Zhao.
On Wednesday, the last of the prosecution’s 17 witnesses came in court, including Morris associates who confirmed several information about Morris’ movements and conduct in the hours leading up to Zhou’s murder. The FBI agent specializing in cellular phone data and the White Lake Police Department detective who oversaw the initial investigation were the key witnesses of the day. The report on the first day of testimony can be found here.
Morris did not take the stand in his own defense nor did his court-appointed defender call any witnesses to support his not-guilty plea. After the conclusion of Wednesday’s testimony, Judge Anderson announced that the trial would have an off day on Thursday to allow both sides to make their final statements. There were nearly 200 pieces of evidence formally introduced into the case during the two days of testimony.
Friday is when the final statements in the case will be heard. After that, Judge Anderson will pick 12 jurors from a larger pool that heard the testimony, and then send them to decide the case.
The FBI put the locations of Morris and Zhao’s phones together
FBI Special Agent George Rienerth, a specialist in cellular-data analysis, was one of the most important witnesses. Rienerth and the FBI were brought into the case to look at the phone records of both Morris and Zhao, who both had two phones, and a Gmail account that included some location- tracking data.
Rienerth said how he combed through thousands of pages of data records provided by service providers after obtaining a search warrant for the data. Then, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, he explained to 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 showed how the data from the towers was used to track Morris’s phone as he traveled late in the day on July 12. The trips included a stop at a pizza-and-party store and the department store where Morris was accused of shoplifting zip-ties and petroleum jelly.
Rienerth’s testimony showed that the cell phone owned by Morris was tracked to the deserted forest-preserve parking lot west of Pontiac where the bound, burned body of Zhao was found the following morning. The stop on Morris’s phone lasted a few minutes after 2 a.m. on July 13. Rienerth noted that only Morris’s phone was present at the preserve’s lot, while Zhao’s phones continued to transmit signals from the Sherwood Motel where the two met hours earlier.
The data cited by Rienerth showed that all three phones were in close proximity to one another. 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 his phones were ever recovered.
Morris’s web search history was testified about by a White Lake police detective
White Lake Police Department detective Thomas Sarasin was the final witness to be called. Sarasin was the detective who responded to the murder scene after it was discovered. Sarasin explained how the area was quickly secured and how he contacted his department’s forensics team to collect and process any evidence found at the site.
The evidence included zip-ties that were presented in the court on Wednesday. A third zip-tie, burned and broken, was found near Zhao’s right foot, while a chain of two ties, partially burned, was found attached to his left wrist. The forensics team was able to obtain samples from the body. At least one of those samples was found to contain Morris’s genetic material. The fingerprints that were obtained when she arrived in the US from China were used to identify her.
The recovery of evidence from the alleged murder scene wasn’t the only thing that Sarasin testified about. He testified that his department had seized Morris’s phone, with another search warrant, in conjunction with Morris’s July 31, 2020 arrest.
Sarasin’s department was able to access virtually all of the data on Morris’s phone using a specialized software tool. 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 verified details of the web-browsing data that was captured from Morris’s phone. The data included 382 web searches from July 2 to July 29 that Morris conducted on his phone, including combinations of such terms as “Asian”, “Chinese”, “extreme”, “kidnapped”, “slave”, “brutal”, and others. The complete web-search phrases were found on Morris’s phone, and included examples such as “brutal fist punching of a bound slave girl”.
Sarasin counted 1,915 web addresses that were visited by the person or persons in possession of Morris’s phone. There are many photos depicting examples of the violent sexual act that Morris is alleged to have inflicted upon Zhao. Sarasin said that there was too many to count.
Sarasin found thumbnail images on Morris’s phone that were taken from a photo given to detectives by her mother as part of their investigation into their murder. On July 10, the phone’s records showed a contact created for “Susie”, which was deleted on July 14.
Morris’s defense attorney asked for permission to approach the judge’s bench after Sarasin finished her testimony. The jurors may have been removed from the courtroom, as well as the electronic feed, while unknown matters were discussed before Judge Anderson, which may have included a request for the Thursday off day. Judge Anderson announced Friday’s resumption of the case after he concluded the day’s proceedings. Morris will be sentenced to life imprisonment if he is found guilty on either of the murder charges.