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Cold Case Casanova – Dr. John Schupp Joins Ohio’s BCI to Reopen Murder Case

john schupp
Dr. John Schupp

** The following article contains graphic content that some readers may find upsetting.**

On February 12, 1981, Barbara Parsons of Norwalk, Ohio was found deceased in her home, having suffered multiple blunt force trauma injuries to the head and face. Her body was discovered lying on the floor of her bedroom, still clutching the white bedding she had presumably been sleeping on when attacked. Both the sheets and blanket were stained red, as was the room’s carpeted floor. Impact splatters were found on her pillow and sheets, and her body was also covered in what was later confirmed to be her own blood. Curiously, some of the stains on Barbara’s bedsheet appeared to be in the shape of specific letters.

Though gruesome to most, Tiffin University’s Dr. John Schupp, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, didn’t bat an eye when reviewing the details and photographs from the now decades-old crime. He knew what the job would entail when he was first brought onto the case as a forensic chemist and consultant. For those who choose this kind of work, a strong stomach is a day-one requirement. As it turns out, the same gruesome details described above ended up sparking the controversy that caused the case to be reopened in June of 2022. It quickly became Dr. Schupp’s job to answer some very important questions. Can a name-bearing Craftsman flex bar leave a readable blood imprint? Can a well-documented chemical enhancement process enhance those blood letters even further? Most importantly, can those enhanced blood letters disappear on their own under the right circumstances?

Depending on the answers, detectives would finally be able to identify the murder weapon and confirm the case against the original defendant. This was where Dr. Schupp came in. As an expert on chemical reactions, he was the perfect person to help Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) contest a civil case brought against the Ohio Attorney General’s office and the original blood spatter expert.

“I don’t think the intent was malicious, but the independent blood splatter expert that was used to question the original analyst didn’t follow certain steps, which is always to mimic the circumstances of the crime as closely as possible,” Dr. Schupp began. “The independent analyst concluded that some transfer of lettering may have occurred with the letter S, but that this wasn’t enough evidence to determine the flex bar was the murder weapon. However, their approach renders some of their counter-claims useless, and the independent analyst felt strongly that there was no way that the enhanced blood stains created by the original expert  ‘disappeared’ after a few minutes. This latter claim was, in all honesty, difficult for me to believe as well.”

According to Dr. Schupp, the original analyst failed to consider the type of surface used in the recreation, the temperature of the room, how long the blood was left in a vial before being applied to the test area and another especially important factor.

evidence tag on a sheet covered in stains on a matress

“These details all mattered,” he explained. “For example, different fabrics have varying levels of absorbency, and if blood is left to sit out for hours at a time, it oxygenates and hardens. Most of all, the independent analyst used an anticoagulant to prevent the blood from clotting before they used it, one day after having it drawn from the independent analyst. However, anticoagulants are designed to stop blood from clotting inside the body. In order to do this, the blood is made less viscous through a chemical reaction. If this was done during the experiment, the blood would have slid right off the sheets like rain from a waterproof jacket.”

So, what was Dr. Schupp to do? Recreate the scene of the crime with his own blood, of course! Using the Tiffin University Crime Scene Laboratory, he and Dr. Sushmita Ghosh, Professor of Science, went to work and tested vials of Dr. Schupp’s blood.

The pair did several tests on both hard and soft surfaces, including a mattress similar to that from the original crime scene. As a control, tests were conducted with samples both treated and untreated with anticoagulant. The temperature of the room was accounted for, and Dr. Schupp’s blood was not left to oxygenate before being tested.

“What’s most interesting about this is that the original researcher didn’t test on hard surfaces,” Dr. Schupp explained. “Barbara Parsons’ bedframe was wooden and the mattress was firm, so if a sheet or pillow were pressed against a headboard, the likelihood of imprinting is much higher. The independent analyst only conducted 10 trials, not enough for a statistical analysis. We conducted 56. Our data showed that letters were indeed discernable 40% of the time, using no anticoagulant and a hard surface, versus less than a 14% probability of discernable letters using a soft surface and an anticoagulant. Our team showed the Ohio AG’s office that given normal conditions, it is entirely possible that ‘letters in blood’ could appear.”

The enhancement of the blood letters created its own special challenges. It had to be created with the exact concentration of acid as was done by the original blood spatter analyst back in 1982. But most importantly, the enhanced letters in blood had to disappear after a few minutes. Did this happen due to evaporation of the solution, or absorption into the mattress or the instability of the product of the reaction? After several additional experiments, Dr. Schupp thought of another possibility. What would happen if the enhanced bloodstains came across a bodily fluid from the victim that was not acidic? An experiment was designed to recreate this exact scenario.

gloved hand moving stained fabric on a mattress

What Dr Schupp found next surprised him. Within seconds of these enhanced stains encountering a basic solution, the entire stain disappeared and did not reappear, even after several days. He repeated the experiment five times, yielding the same results without fail.

“The enhancing solution was designed to be within an acidic medium and while in an acidic environment, the blood stain is enhanced and easily recognizable,” Dr. Schupp began. “But pH is a funny thing – invisible ink works the same way. I thought at best that the enhancement qualities would have been diminished with a higher pH, but having it disappear completely and not return truly blew me away.”

Dr. Ghosh was then consulted to determine if a body, beaten as badly as the victim was, could have released fluids that were basic in nature.

“Absolutely,” said Dr Ghosh. “Once a person is at or near death, the body begins to expel bodily fluids from several areas, not just from open wounds. The probability of the enhancing solution touching some kind of basic or non-acidic fluid is quite high.”

Presently, Dr. Schupp is working with Ohio’s BCI units and Attorney General’s office to refute the claims of the independent analyst and close this case. 

“The devil really is in the details with these things,” said Dr. Schupp. “When anything is left to chance, crimes go unsolved, innocent people are punished and the guilty go free. We wanted to be sure our findings couldn’t be disputed and that the truth was uncovered. Hopefully, this leads to the victim’s murder being solved and some much-needed closure for the family. That’s really why I consult on these cases.”

For more information on Dr. John Schupp’s background, visit tiffin.edu/news/meetschupp.

To learn more about TU’s School of Criminal Justice and Social Sciences, visit tiffin.edu/school-of-criminal-justice-social-sciences.

For additional details about TU’s School of Arts and Sciences, visit tiffin.edu/school-of-arts-sciences.