Exterminator Jason Smith, 36, was arrested and charged with murder, arson, abuse of a corpse and risking a catastrophe on Jan. 23. He is currently being held without bail after confessing to the crime.
Ketunuti, a second-year infectious-diseases fellow and researcher, had called an exterminating service to deal with a rodent problem, according to Capt. James Clark of the Philadelphia Police Department. Smith was subcontracted out for the job.
Police believe Smith and Ketunuti then got into an argument, details of which have not been released.
According to Clark, the suspect “struck her while she was in the basement, knocked her down, strangled her to death and ultimately set her body on fire.” There were no signs of sexual assault. Police believe the body was set on fire in an attempt to get rid of evidence, they said when they announced Smith’s arrest.
Ketunuti’s dog-walker discovered the body on fire in the house approximately 15 minutes after Smith had left the vicinity. He then went on to another job in New Jersey.
Detectives used neighborhood video footage that captured Smith entering and leaving the hope to identify him as the killer. Police reported that Smith’s criminal record contained only “minor traffic offenses” before the incident.
“Melissa was a warm, caring, earnest, bright young woman with her whole future ahead of her,” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the hospital’s division of infectious diseases, said in an emailed statement to CNN.
Ketunuti family spokeswoman Manisha Pai released a statement on Jan. 25.
“The family and friends of Melissa Ketunuti are devastated by this senseless act of violence that has ended the life of someone who was so loved, cherished and admired,” the statement read.
“Melissa was a source of joy to everyone in her life. Her passing has left an enormous gap in our lives.”