Faculty Member Applies Chemistry in Murder Case

    University of Scranton Chemistry Professor David Rusak, Ph.D., was interviewed for new Forensic Files II episode, which is scheduled to air on the HLN channel on Thursday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8.
    May 1, 2020

    University of Scranton Chemistry Professor David Rusak, Ph.D., applied a high-tech chemical analysis procedure to help solve a 2008 Bucks County murder investigation. The case, including an interview with Dr. Rusak, was featured in a recent Forensic Files II episode.

    Mary Jane Fonder was convicted of first-degree murder and related crimes in the Jan. 23, 2008, murder of Rhonda Smith, who was shot inside the church office of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield Township.

    A break in the case a came a few months after the incident, when an 8-year-old boy fishing with his father at Lake Nockamixon found a pistol. Authorities said the gun, owned by Fonder, matched a bullet found in the church office and bullet fragments recovered from Smith’s body. Fonder claimed that she threw the gun in Lake Nockamixon more than a decade ago.

    Dr. Rusak was asked to determine the maximum length of time which the gun could have been exposed to the water. Dr. Rusak, along with David Marx, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry, used a high-speed chemical analysis process called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) to answer that question. The gun in question had a blued steel finish, which is a protective coating that gave the gun its black color. The LIBS analysis showed that the bluing on this gun was unusually thin. If the gun had been in the water for 14 years as Fonder claimed, it would have shown much more corrosion.

    “There’s no way that gun laid in the bottom of a lake for 14 years,” said Dr. Rusak in an interview for the Forensic Files II broadcast. The 13th episode of the new show, tilted “Church Lady,” is scheduled to air again in the U.S. on the HLN channel on Thursday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8. Episodes of Forensic Files II will also be available to stream on Hulu for Hulu Live subscribers.

    The University of Scranton offers a major in forensic chemistry, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to the field with criminal justice course work supplementing primary courses in chemistry. The 132.5 credit major in forensic chemistry was developed to closely follow the standards set by the National Institute of Justice for professionals in the field. The curriculum is consistent with the requirements of the Forensic Education Program Accreditation Committee (FEPAC), and many students completing the program receive a minor in criminal justice.

    Dr. Rusak joined the faculty at Scranton in 2000. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina and his Ph.D. from the University of Florida.

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