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July 10, 2014, 10:40 pm

Police charge man with killing of CHOP doctor

Law enforcement authorities have arrested and charged a suspect in the brutal slaying of a young doctor whose strangled and burning body was found in the basement of her home Monday afternoon.

Jason Smith, 36, from Crescent Lane in Levittown, Pennsylvania, was charged with murder, arson, abuse of a corpse and related offenses in the slaying of Dr. Melissa Ketunuti, 35. Smith was taken in for questioning by police at his home. His silver Ford pickup truck was also confiscated by investigators looking for evidence. Authorities said that on Thursday morning, Smith confessed to killing Ketunuti during an argument.

According to investigators, Smith was on a service call at Ketunuti’s home in the 1700 block of Naudain Street and the two were in the basement when the argument ensued. Captain James Clark of the Homicide Unit said there were no signs of sexual abuse. Investigators also believe that Ketunuti had never met her killer before.

“They got into an argument, and it went terribly wrong,” Clark said during a press conference at Philadelphia Police Headquarters. “He struck the victim and knocked her to the ground. He jumped on top of her and started strangling her with a rope. She passed out and then after binding her hands and feet he set her body on fire to cover up any DNA evidence.”

Clark said that police received an emergency call from Ketunuti’s dog walker around 12:30 p.m. regarding the fire in the basement. When firefighters arrived they extinguished the blaze and discovered the body.

Detectives examined the surveillance records from cameras in the vicinity, particularly several businesses, and learned that the victim had run errands before returning to her home. Several cameras showed Smith following Ketunuti to her home and leaving her residence after about an hour. Surveillance records also showed Smith circling her home before leaving the area. At one point during the investigation, a $33,500 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a suspect.

“I would first like to send my thoughts and prayers to the family, friends and neighbors of Melissa Ketunuti,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “I know their pain must be enormous, and I hope that today’s arrest will help ease some of that pain. I also want to commend the Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide detectives who worked tirelessly to solve this case. I think too often we forget to show our gratitude to these hardworking men and women who are true heroes and whose main priority every day is to bring justice to victims and their families.”

Ketunuti had been working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for five years, serving first as a pediatrician, according to a statement released by Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases.

“The entire community of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Dr. Melissa Ketunuti, a second-year infectious diseases fellow and researcher at CHOP. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, colleagues and friends at this difficult time. Melissa was a warm, caring, earnest, bright, young woman with her whole future ahead of her,” said Offit. “But more than that, she was admired, respected and loved by those with whom she worked here at CHOP. Her death will have a profound impact on those who worked with her, and we will all miss her deeply.”