A Horrific Murder In Philadelphia: Read To Insure Safety


A young doctor in Philly was brutally murdered by one hired to do work in her home. Please read!

A few days ago in a gentrified area of downtown Philadelphia a brilliant 35 year old pediatrician, Melissa Ketunuti, who worked at our distinguished University of Pennsylvania Children's Hospital, specializing in infectious diseases of children, was murdered in her own home. 


When the woman who walks Dr. Ketunuti's six year old black part pit bull--part lab dog arrived on the morning of the murder, she found the door open and the smell of smoke.  Her discovery was horrific:  Dr. Ketunuti had been bound and strangled in the basement of her home, her body set afire.

With the help of security cameras from a near by hospital, photo-imaging technology and "relentless police work," (reported in the "Philadelphia Inquirer," January 25, 2013, pages 1 and 6)  the pieces of this horrid reality have been knit together.  There had been mice in Melissa Ketunuti's basement, and the last person in her home was the exterminator, a subcontractor for the company she contacted for help with this problem. 

Jason Smith, age 36, the subcontractor, confessed to the murder and mutilation, telling police he was "addicted to prescription medicines, including painkillers" and that he "snapped after a brief argument...over something to do with the work."  According to reports, he "struck" this petite woman, "knocked her down.  He (then) got on top of her and strangled her."

Full disclosure:  The home where this murder took place is just a few blocks from where I raised my children, moving there when the area was far from gentrified.   During three years of the period I lived in this home I was a single mom.  Full further disclosure:  When I read this story a few days ago, I shook.  My three daughters and daughter-in-law each lived independently as graduate students and young professionals prior to their marriages.  They each also, like Melissa Ketunati, would be described by mentors,  colleagues, neighbors, and friends as "bright, positive, easy to get along with, ever-friendly and gracious."


As a family therapist for over 30 years, I have worked with and consulted about those where violence and lack of impulse control in word and action are problematic.  I have also worked with their victims.  This kind of "snap" (though thankfully not always culminating in murder) can happen for myriad reasons.  Specifically, when a stranger is in a home it can happen when a sexual advance or attack is denied or resisted, when a woman surprises or confronts one in the process of stealing, or when she tells him to leave for any reason. Since some can tolerate no direction what-so-ever, especially from a woman, It can also happen if she politely tells a workman she is dissatisfied with an aspect of his work; and it can even occur if she requests that he wash his hands or clean up following his work.

In the United States, where equality between the sexes is a goal, and where women are encouraged to speak directly by parents and teachers, we can easily forget that many are not healthy enough to tolerate open communication of this kind without feeling criticized, rejected and controlled; and this group may be likely to "snap."  Further, those entering our homes may be carrying enormous anger and conflict within, and sometimes, even without realizing it, may need a scapegoat for their rage.  

While a great deal has been written about safety measure on the streets, there has been far less warning and guidance about who enters our home, under what circumstances, and appropriate safety measures both before and after our home is entered. In the words of retired FBI agent Joe Navarro: "People spend more time determining which refrigerator they're going to buy than who they are going to allow into their home or even into their bedroom."  Navarro's advice:  "If a contractor arrives with his uniform askew, if he smells of alcohol, trust your instinct and turn him away...If there is something not quite right, turn him away."  He further recommends to have a friend or family member present when work is being done, and if that is not possible, have someone telephone you.  Plus, "always keep distance between you and the workman." ("Philadelphia Inquirer," January 27, 2013, pages B1 and B6) 

Recommendations of professionals from friends and colleagues are always a wise approach. Contractors should assure their clients that an unknown sub-contractor would never be sent to a home.  Clients should also know the name of the professional being sent, how many years he has been employed, and be assured that he has been vetted.  No one asking for these protection measures should be treated impatiently or as a nuisance.  Such an attitude immediately indicates that work should be routed elsewhere. 


A front door should not be opened until the person can be viewed and identifying information (such as the order form or an identifying card) is held up.  Again, always trust your instincts:  If during the time of the service, you feel uncomfortable in any way, to quote Professor Elizabeth Dowdell, of the Villanova University College of Nursing, who studies victimology,, ..."get out.  And be sure you've left an exit route." ("Philadelphia Inquirer," January 27, page B6) 

Dr. Melissa Ketunuti had so much to offer and so much to live for.  We can only hope that her violent, horrifying death can be a wake up call about a very sad reality:  Trustworthy people often believe that others they meet and depend on will have their same reliability and character.  Sadly, this is not always the case, and there are no short cuts to appropriate safety measures.