EDITOR’S NOTE: The following originally published on Philly Mag and Huffington Post back in January 2013 in the wake of the brutal and senseless murder of Children’s Hospital pediatrician Melissa Ketunuti by exterminator Jason Smith. We are re-running it now to mark the commencement of Smith’s murder trial starts today.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Shortly before noon last Monday, Melissa Ketunuti [pictured, below right], a 35-year-old Children’s Hospital pediatrician and research scientist, was beaten, bound, choked to death and then set aflame in the basement of her own house on a tony block of Center City Philadelphia. The gruesome brutality of the murder, the sheer brazenness of perpetrating it in broad daylight — not to mention the zip code of the grisly crime scene — sent a panicked shiver through the legions who live, play or work downtown.
There was a monster on the loose. Exactly nobody was safe.
But by Wednesday night, the most cynical and predictable theories about the perp proved unfounded when the man charged with Ketunuti’s murder turned out to be a bug man from Levittown.
On Thursday night, 36-year-old Jason Smith stood before a magistrate at the Criminal Justice Center, dressed in a gray Yankees hoodie, for a preliminary hearing before being consigned to a cage to await his far-off day in court, wherein he will likely plead guilty and quietly disappear into the bowels of the prison system long after anyone cares, never to be heard from again — closing shut the book on this senseless slaughter of an innocent, not with a bang but a horrible whimper.
At the police press conference Thursday, there were no good answers, just cold hard facts. The alleged killer was neither a spurned lover nor a serial killer, not a rapist nor a thief. The alleged killer was not — much to the palpable disappointment of the comments section trolls of Philly.com — a dark-skinned predator from the North or the West come to prey upon the white, weak and well-off.
It was a white guy from the suburbs who kills bugs for a living.
Out of all its awful attributes, the banality of evil is the hardest to comprehend. How could a crime so heinous be committed by a monster so ordinary? What does it say about the condition of humanity that a man allegedly could beat and hogtie a petite woman in her own home, methodically choke the life out of her, set her face on fire and then calmly melt away into the suburbs to watch American Idol with the family?
And that’s what makes this crime so vexing. All murder is, of course, senseless and unforgivable but this one raises the bar. Ultra-violence in the service of nothing. A monumental waste of a wonderful life, of a beautiful mind, of a woman who, by dint of her profession, was on the side of the angels.
And what have we learned?
That a certain, undisclosed number of us have embedded deep in our genetic code a homicide foretold, waiting for just the right synchronicity of trigger and circumstance to become operational?
That the dangers of the city are not limited to the resident evil of its own pathologies, that some days evil commutes in from the suburbs in a silver Ford F-150?
That evil can come in all colors?
That life is fundamentally unfair, all is chaos, and that at any given moment, even in the sunlight, the full fury of man’s inhumanity to man could be visited upon us without warning or apology?
So enjoy yourself; it’s later than you think.