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Originally published January 24, 2013 at 6:16 PM | Page modified January 25, 2013 at 6:11 AM

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Exterminator charged in strangling of Philadelphia doctor

Jason Smith, an exterminator, had an appointment at Dr. Melissa Ketunuti’s home the day she was killed. He told police he killed her after an argument, police said.

The Associated Press

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PHILADELPHIA — An exterminator has been charged with strangling a Philadelphia doctor found bound and burned in her downtown row home, police said Thursday.

Jason Smith, 36, was arrested Wednesday night at his home in Levittown, about 25 miles northeast of the city, homicide unit Capt. James Clark said.

Smith was charged with murder, arson, abuse of a corpse and risking a catastrophe in the slaying of Dr. Melissa Ketunuti, 35, on Monday afternoon. He had no prior criminal record other than “minor traffic offenses,” Clark said.

“She needed an exterminator, she called a certain service, he was subcontracted out,” Clark said. “They got into some type of argument. It went terribly wrong.”

Smith had an appointment at Ketunuti’s home the day she was killed. He gave a statement that he attacked her and killed her in the home after an argument, police said.

Smith “struck her while she was in the basement, knocked her down, strangled her to death and ultimately set her body on fire” in an apparent attempt to hide evidence, Clark said.

There were no signs of sexual assault and nothing was stolen from the home of the victim, whose body was bound with rope at her wrists and ankles and wrapped around her neck, police said.

Police took Smith into custody about 9 p.m. Wednesday at the 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, which charged at them, police said.

Investigators said Smith and Ketunuti, a second-year infectious-diseases fellow and researcher at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, had never met before. Clark would not elaborate on the substance of the fatal argument.

“It’s very tragic,” he said. “You have a young physician who dedicated her life to helping people and to die in this tragic manner, it’s very, very sad.”

Ketunuti, who had been having a problem with rodents in her house, was running errands around the neighborhood just before meeting up with the exterminator, Clark said.

He said detectives watched hours of surveillance video from nearby businesses, one of which shows Smith entering Ketunuti’s home with a work bag and dressed in a coat and gloves and then leaving without a coat less than an hour later. Other video shows the suspect getting into his truck after the slaying and driving past her home several times, Clark said.

“Detectives did an unbelievable job of finding every bit of footage that was in that area,” Clark said.

Smith could not be reached for comment.

Ketunuti’s parents are making arrangements to travel from their home in Thailand to Philadelphia, Clark said.

Material from The Philadelphia Inquirer is included in this report.

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