Slain Doctor, Exterminator Argued Before Killing, Police Say - New York News

Slain Doctor, Exterminator Argued Before Killing, Police Say

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Police say Jason Smith, 36, OF Levittown, faces charges of murder, abuse of corpse, arson and risking catastrophe. (Courtesy: Philadelphia Police Dept.) Police say Jason Smith, 36, OF Levittown, faces charges of murder, abuse of corpse, arson and risking catastrophe. (Courtesy: Philadelphia Police Dept.)
PHILADELPHIA -

Murder charges have been filed against Jason Smith of Levittown, the suspect who police say killed a Center City doctor and then set her on fire.

Police formally announced the charges in the death of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Dr. Melissa Ketunuti during a news conference Thursday morning at headquarters.

Smith, a 36-year-old exterminator, faces counts of murder, abuse of corpse, arson and risking catastrophe, Homicide Unit Capt. James Clark said.

Ketunuti was found tied up, strangled and set on fire in her Center City home Monday.

At 10 p.m. last night, homicide detectives, U.S. Marshals and Bristol police went to a home in Levittown and transported Smith back to Philadelphia.

Later, he gave a statement admitting to the killing, police said.

According to investigators, Smith was sub-contracted out to service Ketunuti's home for a rodent problem. They had never met before.

"During the course of him servicing her, they got into some type of argument. It went terribly wrong. At that point, he struck her while she was in the basement, knocked her down, strangled her to death and then ultimately set her body on fire," Clark said.

Police said a rope from the basement was used to commit the strangulation and also to bound the doctor. Rope similar to that was found in the house.

Police did not go into what the argument was about. They say Smith went to another exterminating job after the alleged killing.

As for why Smith set the fire, Clark said, "The only thing I can surmise is that he was trying to hide evidence or whatever DNA we may or may not be able to get."

Regarding Smith's demeanor while giving his statement, Clark said detectives told him "at some point it was solemn, but at other points it was sort of like he was in a fog," adding that he seemed "somewhat" regretful.

Surveillance video played a large role in the arrest, police said, noting that detectives scoured the neighborhood and found footage of Smith following Ketunuti to her home.

The footage showed Smith following Ketunuti about 30 seconds behind her to his scheduled appointment. His truck can also be seen going down Naudain Street twice when he leaves.

A dog-walker found Ketunuti's burning body in the basement of her home less than an hour later.

"As I said earlier, detectives did an unbelievable job. They were relentless in their search," Clark said.

Residing with Smith at his Levittown home were his girlfriend, a child, and the girlfriend's step-father.

The 36-year-old exterminator has only minor traffic offenses on his record.

Clark called the killing "very tragic," but said police are happy to be able to give Ketunuti's family -- who are traveling from Thailand to Philadelphia -- some degree of closure with an arrest.

"I mean, you have a young physician that dedicated her life to helping people," he said. "And to die in this tragic manner, it's very, very sad."

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams issued a statement Thursday, extending thoughts and prayers to Ketunuti's family, friends and neighbors.

"I know their pain must be enormous," he said, "and I hope that today's arrest will help ease some of that pain."

Williams also commended the homicide detectives who worked tirelessly to solve this case.

"I think too often we forget to show our gratitude to these hard working men and women who are true heroes and whose main priority everyday is to bring justice to victims and their families," Williams said.

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