Police have made an arrest in the murder of 35-year-old Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia doctor Melissa Ketunuti, who was on Monday afternoon strangled to death and her body set on fire in the basement of her Center City home.
Jason Smith, 36, of Levittown, an exterminator Ketunuti had hired to perform pest control services in her home, was last night taken into custody by detectives with the Philadelphia police Homicide Unit, U.S. Marshals and Bristol police. He is charged with murder, abuse of a corpse, arson and risking a catastrophe, police said.
“Detectives did an unbelievable job,” said Capt. James Clark of the Homicide Unit. “They were relentless in their search. They went to several area stores, they found video of the suspect actually going on her block about an hour before police found her, and then with that information, we were able to identify who he was.”
But most of the answers in the case end there. Smith was hired by Ketunuti to perform pest control services that day,
Clark said, and had never met the woman before. He had no known violent
history and was largely a stranger to police.
“She needed an exterminator, she called a certain service, he was subcontracted out,” said Clark, who declined to name exactly what exterminator company Ketunuti called. “During the course of him servicing her, they got into some type of argument. It went terribly wrong.”
He did not say what that argument was about, only that it happened when Ketunuti and Smith were in the basement and quickly escalated. “There was a verbal altercation and with that, he struck her,” Clark said. “She went to the ground, he immediately jumped on top of her and started strangling her.”
He said Smith bound Ketunuti’s hands and feet behind her at some point during the struggle and allegedly strangled her using rope he found in the basement
“We did find rope similar to that in the house,” Clark said, referring to a search last night of the Levittown home Smith shares with his girlfriend and her young child.
Investigators believe Smith set Ketunuti’s body ablaze in an attempt to destroy any DNA evidence he may have left behind. The woman was not sexually assaulted, police said.
Investigators were led to Smith’s home following a thorough review of nearby camera footage. “They went through hours of surveillance video,” Clark said. “Detectives did an unbelievable job of finding every bit of footage that was in that area. And what we saw was the suspect actually following about 30 seconds behind the decedent down 18th Street and onto Naudain Street, which led us to him.”
He said police also have video footage putting Smith at the scene after the crime. “After the murder, we see him get back in his truck and go down Naudain Street twice,” he said. “And obviously, that led us even more to the suspect.”
Clark said that Smith was last night brought to the Homicide Unit for questioning as a person of interest. “He made a statement to detectives and with that statement and other evidence, there’s more than enough for us to charge him.”
Ketunuti’s parents are experiencing some difficulty in returning to the country from Thailand, according to Clark, but are currently en route. “We’re glad for the family we’re at least able to give some closure with the arrest of this individual,” he said.
District Attorney Seth Williams in a statement echoed Clark’s sentiments. “I would first like to send my thoughts and prayers to the family, friends and neighbors of Melissa Ketunuti,” he said. “I know their pain must be enormous and I hope that today’s arrest will help ease some of that pain.”