Ketunuti killing has echoes for a sister pushing for change

Melissa Ketunuti was found slain in her Philadelphia home Jan. 21.
Melissa Ketunuti was found slain in her Philadelphia home Jan. 21.
Posted: February 01, 2013

Lucia Bone is one of the few people who knows exactly what the family of slain Philadelphia pediatrician Melissa Ketunuti is going through.

Her sister, Sue Weaver, was raped and murdered in 2001 by an air-conditioner repairman, who then set fire to her Florida house in an attempt to destroy evidence.

"There are no words to describe it," Bone said in an interview. "It's the most horrific thing anybody can ever experience."

Ketunuti, 35, was found strangled, bound, and set on fire in her Graduate Hospital-area home Jan. 21. Police have charged Jason Smith, a 36-year-old Levittown exterminator. He told police that he booked the call through Dave Bilyk Exterminators, a Newtown firm for which he was a subcontractor.

The company had no comment, a man answering the phone there said Wednesday.

The horror of the killing has resonated all the way to Texas, where Bone has followed the case out of personal and professional interest. After her sister's death, she started Sue Weaver CAUSE - Consumer Awareness of Unsafe Service Employment - to push businesses to conduct full criminal-background checks of workers who visit homes.

The agency has sought federal legislation, so far unsuccessfully.

The nonprofit offers a seal of approval for contractors, encouraging them to become "CAUSE-certified." That means they conduct annual criminal checks of all workers they send to homes. Consumers waiting for service can link to a website that provides detailed information, including a photo, of the person coming to their house.

Bone is director of CAUSE, which she said had one goal: "For there to never be another tragedy like what happened to Sue and what happened to the doctor."

Funeral arrangements for Ketunuti were still pending this week, according to Manisha Pai, her college roommate.

The slayings of Ketunuti and Weaver were in some ways similar.

Ketunuti wanted the mice out of her basement. Weaver, 52, wanted her ducts cleaned.

She called Burdine's, at that time a large department store chain in Florida. The store subcontracted the work to Adler Services, which in February 2001 sent two men to Weaver's home.

One was Jeffrey Hefling, a twice-convicted sex offender out on parole. Neither the store nor the subcontractor checked his record.

Six months after making the service call, Hefling returned to Weaver's home and beat her to death. In 2004 he was sentenced to life in prison, and Burdine's agreed to a $9 million settlement with Weaver's family.

Bone said companies that might not want to incur the trouble and expense of background checks should consider the potentially ruinous financial penalties if something goes wrong. CAUSE is working with insurers to try to lower rates for companies that do checks.

"We believe there's a job for everyone," Bone said. "If he learned plumbing in prison, that's great, let him be a plumber - but not in my house. Let him work in commercial plumbing or at construction sites. . . . You don't put a drug dealer in a pharmacy, you wouldn't put a sex offender in a day-care center, or put a thief in a bank."

The incidence of murders committed by in-home workers appears to be tiny, though specific figures are not available. Crime records show most victims are killed by someone they know. Strangers committed 21 percent of murders in 2011.

"Contractors who commit murder are extremely rare," said Wayne Welsh, a criminal-justice professor at Temple University. "The vast majority of contractors are just people trying to make a living."

Still:

In 1999 in Rhode Island, a 66-year-old grandmother was found beaten to death in the upstairs bathtub of her home. A worker from the company hired to build a first-floor addition was convicted.

In 2005 in New York state, a woman was raped and murdered by the worker assigned by a house-painting contractor to power-wash her backyard deck.

In 2006 in Florida, two elderly people were stabbed to death and a third was injured by a lawn-service worker.

In 2009 in California, a landscape contractor was charged with murder and attempted murder after attacking a husband and wife, killing the woman and injuring the man.

Bone was close to her sister. They talked every day. Both worked in the embroidery business, Lucia in Flower Mound, Texas, and Sue in Orlando.

After Weaver's death, the family met to decide how to honor her. From that sprang CAUSE, which operates on an $82,000 annual budget.

"You have a right to know who is coming into your home," she said, "and if you don't feel comfortable, you have every right to shut that door."


Contact Jeff Gammage

at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com,

or on Twitter @JeffGammage.

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