Man charged in murder of graduate student
Police say Jason Smith strangled Melissa Ketunuti student after an argument
January 24, 2013, 7:32 pm·
Police have made an arrest in the homicide of Perelman School of Medicine graduate student Melissa Ketunuti.
The Philadelphia Police Department announced in a press conference Thursday that Jason Smith, a 36-year-old exterminator, has been arrested and formally charged with murder, abuse of corpse and two others charges related to the killing.
Captain James Clark, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police homicide division, said that surveillance footage of the area proved to be a great help in identifying Smith.
According to Clark, Smith was an exterminator subcontracted to Ketunuti, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in order to solve her home’s rodent problem.
Sometime in the course of Smith’s work on Monday, the two got into “a verbal altercation” in the basement of Ketunuti’s house, Clark said. Smith allegedly struck her during this argument, knocking her to the ground.
Smith then allegedly jumped on top of Ketunuti and strangled her with a rope until she was dead. He allegedly bound her wrists and ankles and lit her body on fire in what police believe was an effort to destroy DNA evidence.
Monday was the first time Ketunuti and Smith had ever met, according to Clark.
Clark said that the statement Smith gave to authorities on Wednesday evening, in addition to evidence available to police, was “more than enough” to warrant the murder charge.
Smith’s Ford pickup truck was caught by several surveillance cameras in the vicinity of Ketunuti’s home at 1728 Naudain St.
Smith was also seen on surveillance footage at a nearby coffee shop at 18th and South streets several minutes after leaving the house. Not long after this, police say that Smith drove by Ketunuti’s house again.
Smith, who resides in Levittown, Pa., with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s child, was brought into custody at 10 p.m. Wednesday night. According to Clark, he was “not known to police for anything serious until now,” outside of a few traffic violations.
“We’re glad for the family to be able to give some closure,” Clark said.
Clark added that Ketunuti’s parents are in the process of trying to get to Philadelphia from their home in Thailand.