LARGO — John Jonchuck is guilty of first-degree murder, a jury ruled Tuesday, and should spend the rest of his life in prison for dropping his daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge into the chilly, dark waters of Tampa Bay.
He was not facing the death penalty.
Over more than four weeks, jurors heard a tangled narrative of Jonchuck’s mental history. His public defenders argued that he was insane at the time of the killing, driven by imagined voices and delusions, unaware that what he was doing was wrong. Their case was built on Jonchuck’s recollection of hearing an old Swedish Bible knocking, of listening to Phoebe chanting when she touched it, of thinking she was possessed and that he was the Pope or God.
His rantings did not sway the jury, which ultimately decided that Jonchuck, now 29, knew killing 5-year-old Phoebe was wrong. Prosecutors said he was acting out of vengeance, killing Phoebe so her mother could never get custody of her and because he was bitter that his own mother loved the little girl with affection she never showed for him.
Jonchuck’s mother and uncle both said if he was not insane, he should “rot in hell” for what he did to Phoebe.
“I want to tell him I love him, because he’s my son,” Michele Jonchuck said through tears in a phone interview after the verdict Tuesday. “But when it comes to what he’s done, I hate him. He took my sunshine away.”
The verdict comes four years after the horrific morning of Jan. 8, 2015, when the region awoke to the inconceivable news that a father had dropped his daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge, on the approach to the landmark Sunshine Skyway.
Phoebe loved the color pink, angels and butterflies. Her smiling face was burned into the area’s collective conscience. A makeshift memorial lingers at the edge of the bridge.
Since her death, the prevailing question has gone unanswered: Why?
In rendering a verdict, jurors gave their assumed answer: Evil.
“I am satisfied that justice was done,” said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. “My immediate reaction is killing children doesn’t make one a very sympathetic character.”
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger did not return a call for comment, though his office is likely to appeal. Craig Whisenhunt, a former public defender turned private attorney who consulted on the case, said that as the verdict was read, Jonchuck’s mind was with two of his public defenders, Jessica Manuele and Jane McNeill.
As they embraced in the courtroom, “John told his attorneys to take care of each other.”
A troubled boy
No one knows what was going through Jonchuck’s mind when he raced to the top of the bridge, scooped his daughter from the back seat, yelled at a police officer — then dropped her into Tampa Bay.
Twelve lay people — seven men and five women — had to decide. They deliberated for 6½ hours.
After the verdict was read, deputies led the jurors out of a side door in the courthouse. Minutes later, in the parking garage, five declined to comment on their decision.
Not guilty by reason of insanity cases are very rare. State numbers show between 2004 and 2018, there were 5,998 murder trials that went to juries in Florida. Of those, 111 ended with a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity — less than 2 percent.
The Jonchuck jurors heard from law enforcement officers and mental health experts, family members and forensic psychiatrists. They looked at autopsy photos and watched video interrogations. They missed a month of work, of reading the news and being on social media.
They learned about a lifetime of struggle, scheming and violence. And a kindergartener who didn’t know how to swim. Who begged to stay with her daddy, the night before he killed her.
Jonchuck had always been troubled and temperamental, desperate for attention and prone to violent outbursts, his friends and family said. His parents split up when he was young, and he spent his childhood bouncing between his dad’s and uncles’ houses. His mother, who used cocaine and spent time in jail, mostly was absent.
During the trial, psychologists said that abandonment left Jonchuck angry and suffering from attachment issues.
He got thrown out of a dozen preschools. He was 5 — Phoebe’s age — when his family started taking him to see a doctor, who prescribed drugs to stabilize his moods. He was 12 the first time he was arrested, for threatening his dad with a butcher knife.
In middle school, Jonchuck was loud and popular; he put on puppet shows in the cafeteria. He often had bruises and black eyes. He told his friends his dad beat him, told them he hated his dad.
Child protective officers investigated Jonchuck’s dad four times, but never arrested him. John Jonchuck Sr. could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In eighth grade, Jonchuck told everyone he was gay. The next year, he dropped out of school. He was 17 when he climbed on the roof of his dad’s duplex and slit his arm with a knife — a desperate attempt to get out of his house, one psychologist said.
That was the first time his family committed him. By their count, Jonchuck has been Baker Acted 27 times.
Born into strife
In many ways, his life — and Phoebe’s death — show failures in mental health treatment and child protective services. Jonchuck had prescriptions, but couldn’t always afford to fill them, or didn’t want to. When he didn’t have insurance, he stopped going to treatment.
The Department of Children and Families knew about Jonchuck and Phoebe, and were called to check on them multiple times. Both were left in their broken homes.
At 18, Jonchuck was bouncing between friends’ houses, working at a strip club, doing drugs. He drank a lot, smoked pot and spice, used meth so often his fingers were singed from the little glass pipe. Sometimes, the drugs helped him relax, friends said. Other times, they made him mean.
“He was a monster,” his uncle Bryan Morris had said.
Jonchuck was high when he met Michelle Kerr, a buxom blonde who was five years older. He told her she was beautiful. “Maybe,” he said, “I’m not gay.”
He asked her to marry him four times. He enrolled at Hillsborough Community College with her, slit her tires in a jealous rage, threw her mother’s wedding ring out a window. “He’d be as sweet as anything,” Kerr once said. “Then go all Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
She wouldn’t marry him. But they moved in together, and she got pregnant. They named their daughter Phoebe, after Jonchuck’s chihuahua.
Kerr could not be reached for comment on the verdict Tuesday. She did not appear in court during the trial.
Their relationship was rocky, riddled with drugs and fights. Kerr was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis soon after Phoebe was born, and became unable to drive. So when they split up, Jonchuck said he would take care of their daughter.
Phoebe had long, honey-colored hair that had never been cut. She loved Blues Clues, thick steaks, books about dogs — and her daddy. When she sat on Santa’s lap, she asked what he wanted for Christmas.
Jonchuck dragged her between friends’ houses, his dad’s duplex, his uncles’ home and his mom’s apartment. He filed injunctions against Kerr, trying to keep her from seeing Phoebe. During the month before he killed his daughter, Jonchuck started worrying that Kerr or his mother would take her from him.
That’s why he went to a custody lawyer that last day, before Phoebe died. He told the lawyer, Genevieve Torres, he was the creator, and asked her to read the Swedish Bible. The lawyer called police and child protective services. A Department of Children and Families hotline worker decided not to send anyone to talk to him.
But deputies responded that afternoon and interviewed Jonchuck at a church where he went begging for a baptism. They decided he was okay, then let him go, with Phoebe.
Hours later, she was dead.
Torres said Tuesday she watched the verdict live on YouTube.
“So glad that justice is finally served for Phoebe,” she later said by phone while coaching a middle school tennis match. “It’s closure for the family and everyone who was touched by this tragedy.”
The St. Petersburg police officer who heard Phoebe scream as she dropped toward the dark water shared the lawyer’s relief.
“I am pleased with the verdict,” William “Drew” Vickers said in a statement, “and am glad to have some closure for Phoebe and her family after four long years.”
Battle over insanity
The jurors’ challenge was to determine whether Jonchuck knew what he was doing when he killed Phoebe, and that it was wrong. They had to hear how the girl fell 62 feet into Tampa Bay. And they had to look at autopsy photos of Phoebe’s pale, bruised body.
No one from Phoebe’s family, or any of Jonchuck’s friends, came to watch the trial. His uncle later said he was sequestered and not allowed to sit in court but wished he could have testified.
Jonchuck’s mother took the stand early, for just minutes, saying Phoebe couldn’t swim. As she left court, she mouthed to her son, “I love you.”
His dad also testified briefly. He said he threw his son out of the house at 18 “because he damaged my house, scared my wife.” Jonchuck was at his dad’s house, with Phoebe, that night he scooped her from her bed, carried her into his Chrysler PT Cruiser and strapped her into her car seat. His dad said he saw them as late as 10:30 p.m., and Jonchuck wasn’t acting particularly strange. He testified that he didn’t hear them leave. In court, he never really looked at his son.
Most of the witnesses were law enforcement officers who saw Jonchuck the night he killed Phoebe. And experts who argued he was either evil or insane.
Prosecutors painted a portrait of an angry, vengeful man who couldn’t hold a job, cooked up money-making schemes and planned to kill his daughter at least a day in advance.
Defense lawyers emphasized how long Jonchuck had been treated for mental health issues, and how he became psychotic before he dropped his daughter, ranting about God and making a sacrifice to save the world.
Both teams of attorneys spent a lot of time debating what witnesses would be allowed to say on the stand. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger kept sending the jurors out of the courtroom so she could conference with the lawyers.
There were a lot of things the jurors didn’t get to hear — including the word “psychopath.” And a paralegal’s testimony that, on the day before Phoebe died, Jonchuck had told her not to worry about his custody case, saying, “If I can’t have her, then no one else will.”
The judge called that a “killer statement.” But because prosecutors hadn’t told defense attorneys about it, jurors never got to hear it.
Assistant state attorneys Doug Ellis and Paul Bolan brought in a psychologist who said Jonchuck had mental illness, but that he knew what he was doing that night — and that it was wrong. Jonchuck told the officer who watched him carry Phoebe from his car, “You have no free will.” After he let her go, he raced south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, then made a U-turn to elude police. Both of those actions, psychologist Peter Bursten said, show Jonchuck was sane when he committed the crime.
“A guy who, right up to the murder, has some appreciation of legal boundaries,” the psychologist said. “It doesn’t mean he was not having psychotic symptoms. You can have both.”
Emily Lazarou, a psychiatrist hired by the prosecution, testified that she doesn’t think Jonchuck is even mentally ill, much less insane. She said he couldn’t have bipolar disorder because he took stimulants as a boy, which could bring on bouts of mania.
She thinks Jonchuck was malingering — making things up. And if he really thought both he and his daughter needed to die that night, Lazarou asked, why didn’t he jump, too?
The defense challenged Lazarou vigorously on cross-examination, and contrasted her testimony with their own experts — two psychologists and a psychiatrist — who said Jonchuck was insane when he killed his daughter.
“It is never going to make sense,” Manuele, one of the public defenders, said during her closing argument. “We’ve tried our hardest, we’ve listened to it all. It is insanity.”
The missing voice
Throughout the trial, jurors took notes on yellow legal pads, looked at evidence, asked experts questions.
And they watched Jonchuck, slumped at the defense table in a borrowed dress shirt and tie, rocking, his mouth hanging open. They didn’t know that, two weeks into the trial, his lawyers had told the judge that he was hallucinating again, hearing voices. Or that two psychologists had evaluated him and determined he was competent to continue going to court.
Jonchuck never took the stand. Jurors never heard his voice. Except in videos they watched.
In one, Lazarou asks how he’s feeling. “Kind of sad,” Jonchuck says slowly, his speech slightly slurred. What makes you feel sad? the psychiatrist asks.
In the video, Jonchuck hesitates. He says, sniffling, “Because I was her father and she loved me so much and I always told her I’d never let anything happen to her.
“And I did.”
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird, data reporter Connie Humburg and staff writer Jack Evans contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] Follow @ZackSampson. Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] Follow @LaneDeGregory.