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Pediatrician slain - found bound and on fire in her Center City home

NEIGHBORS SAID Melissa Ketunuti, a young doctor who lived in Center City, dedicated herself to three things: her work, her dog and her health.

NEIGHBORS SAID Melissa Ketunuti, a young doctor who lived in Center City, dedicated herself to three things: her work, her dog and her health.

The petite, pretty woman could often be seen in her quiet section of Center City walking Pooch, a black Lab mix, heading to work or going for a morning run.

So when a woman believed to be Ketunuti was found slain in the basement of her house Monday afternoon - her hands and feet bound behind her back and her body set afire - the tight-knit block of Naudain Street near 17th where she lived was shaken to its core.

"It's really upsetting," neighbor Pamela Rimato Tirone, who took in Ketunuti's dog after the woman's dog walker made the horrifying discovery of her body on fire in the house Monday afternoon. "It's very scary. It's horrible."

Firefighters were called to the prim, narrow block of rowhouses about 12:30 p.m. and found a woman's body, facedown and with her ankles and wrists bound, on fire in the basement, Chief Inspector Scott Small said.

Firefighters put out the blaze, and she was pronounced dead at the scene at 12:47 p.m. Medical Examiner's Office investigators and homicide detectives at the scene were unable to immediately determine the cause of death, police said.

The M.E.'s office was to perform an autopsy Tuesday.

Police said the woman's face and upper body were so badly burned that she was unrecognizable, but neighbors identified her as Ketunuti, 35, a Stanford University graduate who, according to her blog, came to Philadelphia in 2008 to start a residency at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Property records for the house where the woman's body was found also listed Ketunuti as the homeowner.

Police said there was no sign of forced entry or of anything having been taken from the house, and they knew of no suspects or motive in the gruesome killing Monday night. Receipts from a store the woman visited shortly before she was killed were being reviewed as evidence, police said.

A neighbor who was home Monday afternoon when fire trucks and police converged on the normally quiet side street between Lombard and South said he hadn't heard any barking from Pooch, who was in the house when the body was found.

"I think she knew who did it if the dog didn't do anything," said Victor Pisani, adding that he didn't know the woman but would say hello to her when he saw her.

On her blog, Ketunuti wrote about her work and travels.

In a 2008 post she wrote during a trip with her parents to Bangkok, she detailed her move to Philadelphia to start her residency at CHOP.

"The CHOP pediatrics program, aside from being one of the largest in the country (40 something residents per year), is an incredibly supportive program," the woman wrote. "As sexy as it was to be a lifesaving surgeon, I feel much better suited for pediatrics."

She also wrote on the blog about her time at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., working at a surgery internship.

Ketunuti was well-liked on her block of Naudain Street, even by neighbors who didn't know her well.

"She was a very nice neighbor. Very considerate, very bright," said Don Lubin. "She was a terrific neighbor."

An avid runner, she ran the Philadelphia Marathon (3:53:13 in 2010) and half-marathon (1:48:59 in 2011), according to online records. Neighbors said they often saw her going for a run or walking Pooch near her home.

Ketunuti spent the summer of 2004 in a Johannesburg hospital studying HIV genes in South African children, according to the Stanford Report.

"It was an incredible place," she told the Stanford Report of the trip. "People were dying left and right from something for which a treatment exists here."

A spokeswoman from CHOP said that the hospital had no information to release Monday night and that she could not confirm that Ketunuti was employed by the hospital.

Tirone and her husband, Robert, said that Ketunuti was busy and that she came and went from her house often. She lived there with only Pooch, they said.

The Tirones said Ketunuti moved onto the block about three years ago and echoed other neighbors' feelings about the woman.

"She was very nice, very full of life, very healthy," Pamela Rimato Tirone said. "The details that came out about it are just really horrible."

Tirone said that in the nine years she and her husband have lived on the block, she's never felt unsafe, and that the killing came as a shock.

She and her husband agreed to take Pooch in Monday night from another neighbor on the block who'd initially taken the dog from Ketunuti's house after police arrived, she said. They know the dog from seeing Ketunuti walking him when they walk their own dog.

She said she contacted the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team, which helps animals displaced in emergencies, to find a foster home for the dog.

"I'm just going to stay with him tonight. I'm hoping he's OK," Tirone said. "Hopefully, someone from the family will come forward" and take the dog, she said.

She said that she wasn't sure whether Ketunuti has any family in the area and that in the roughly three years they'd been neighbors, she could recall seeing the woman with other people only a handful of times.

Pooch calmly wandered around the Tirones' living room Monday night, leaning against Pamela Rimato Tirone's legs as the woman rubbed his head.

"Dogs have very expressive eyes," the woman said, looking sadly at the handsome black dog. "I can just tell he knows something bad happened to his mom."

-Staff writer Solomon Leach

contributed to this report.