Arrest made in basement slaying of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia doctor
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Jason Smith, a 36-year-old Levittown exterminator, was charged with murder today in the killing of Melissa Ketunuti, who was found this week strangled, bound, and set on fire in the basement of her Center City rowhouse.
Smith, of Crescent Lane, gave a statement spelling out his involvement. He has been charged with murder and abuse of a corpse, Philadelphia police homicide unit Capt. James Clark said.
Smith, who works for an extermination company, had an appointment at Ketunuti's home the day she was killed. He said in his statement he attacked her and killed her in the home after an argument, police said.
Smith struck then strangled Ketunuti with a rope. Then he set the body ablaze.
She was not sexually assaulted, Clark said.
Ketunuti let Smith into her home, Clark said.
"During the course of him servicing her, they got into some type of argument," Clark said. "It went terribly wrong."
That disagreement "escalated into murder," he said.
Monday was the first time Ketunuti and Smith had met. Clark said Smith's only prior contact with police had been minor traffic violations.
Smith was captured on surveillance footage at a coffee shop at 18th and South Streets near Ketunuti's house around the time of the slaying, police said.
Police took Smith into custody about 9 p.m. last night at the Levittown home he shared with his girlfriend of six years and their daughter. The girlfriend's parents also lived at the home. Smith has a son who does not live with him.
Police arrived as the family was watching "American Idol." They searched the house and truck.
They shot and killed the family's boxer, who charged at them at the scene, sources said.
Smith's computer was taken from the house. His coat was taken by police for examination.
The surveillance video shows Smith entering Ketunuti's home wearing a coat, and gloves, and carrying a work bag. He was seen leaving about 50 minutes without a coat. Ketunuti had been running errands around the neighborhood just before the encounter with Smith.
Sources said police scoured Ketunuti's personal records, including her phone, and found that she had an appointment with an extermination company. They traced a number to Smith's phone.
Back at Smith's house, a single family, blue, two-story suburban residence with a white picket fence that stands out amid the ranchers in the neighborhood.
A man who answered the door this morning said he had no comment.
Smith's property still displayed Christmas decorations and wire reindeer on the front lawn. Investigators scoured garbage cans there late Wednesday night as police helicopters hovered overhead.
Police also towed his silver Ford F-150 truck and recovered potential evidence from the vehicle. An investigator said officers were "looking for any link to her."
Neighbors in what's known as the Crabtree section of Levittown in Bristol Township said Smith was mostly quiet and was often seen walking the dog.
A next-door neighbor, who did not want his name used, said Smith, "was always helpful -- anytime you need help he would volunteer."
The neighbor called Smith a, "good family man" who did not seem to have a temper.
Ketunuti, 35, a pediatrician and researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, was found strangled, bound by rope, and set afire Monday in the basement of her rowhouse in the 1700 block of Naudain Street.
Her killing horrified neighbors on her quiet block, and set other Center City residents on edge.
This week investigators have worked around the clock retracing Ketunuti's steps, outlining how she spent her final hours, and narrowing the time of the killing to between 10:50 a.m., when she returned home from errands, and 11:50 a.m.
Members of the Homicide Task Force collected surveillance footage from cameras at the coffee shop, drugstore, and the hospital overlooking the block where she lived and removed evidence from her house.
Investigators also returned to the crime scene Wednesday.
Ketunuti lived with her pit bull/Lab mix, Pooch. Her boyfriend, Surya Mundluru, a doctor who lives in New York, assisted police inside Ketunuti's house Tuesday.
On Wednesday Clark said the Ketunuti's family members were still in Thailand, and were "making their way" to Philadelphia.
Also Wednesday, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson announced $15,000 in private donations for a reward for the arrest and conviction of a suspect, adding to the city's $20,000 police reward.
Johnson said he was in Washington for President Obama's second inauguration when he learned about Monday's "act of evil and wickedness" in his Philadelphia district.
"She specifically made a choice to pursue her career here in the city of Philadelphia," Johnson said of Ketunuti, who was pursuing a master of science in clinical epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.
First Published January 24, 2013 12:21 pm