Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Records illuminate erratic days before Phoebe Jonchuck's death

ST. PETERSBURG — The officer trained his pistol at the man in pajamas, the one who'd been speeding before coming to a halt and flinging open his door.

"Get back in the car!" the officer shouted. "Get back in the car!"

"You have no free will," the man said. He walked behind his car, holding a black book, and opened a rear door.

"Let me see your hands!" the officer yelled.

The man pulled a young girl from the car. He walked to the edge of the Dick Misener Bridge and lifted her over the dark water, staring at the officer.

Then he let 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck go.

The officer heard a faint scream, then a splash. As the man police have identified as Phoebe's father drove off, the officer ran to the side of bridge and climbed a ladder to a catwalk below.

"I called for the child, pleading for her to yell and let me know she was okay," the officer said, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times Thursday.

But she was gone.

• • •

St. Petersburg police Officer William Vickers' narrative, included in court records, provides the sole eyewitness account of Phoebe's death. The records enhance a troubled portrait of Phoebe's father, John Jonchuck, who friends and family indicate had been coming undone in the weeks before her death in the early hours of Jan. 8.

He had begun to spout Scripture, they said, and clung to a Bible. He claimed he was God, the Pope, a "fallen angel." He became obsessed with bridge jumpers and asked a priest for an exorcism. He sent friends strange texts and acted so erratically that a family lawyer called 911 just 13 hours before Phoebe died.

Jonchuck, 25, has been charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.

A judge in February found him mentally incompetent, incapable of fully understanding the charges he faces. He is receiving treatment. When he regains competency, the case can resume.

• • •

Vickers had been driving home when he saw Jonchuck's PT Cruiser barrelling down I-275 south at 100 mph. After seeing the Cruiser stop just after midnight, Vickers stopped, too.

About 10 minutes after Phoebe hit the water, police used stop sticks to disable Jonchuck's car in Manatee County.

In a police custody room about 1 a.m., Jonchuck ate Ritz crackers and answered questions with a blank face, an officer said, once asking after Phoebe's condition. He called his arrest a conspiracy.

"My name is God and you shall address me as such," he told an officer. "I command you to take me to the city of Babylon now."

He asked again and again for his Bible.

Later, in court, Jonchuck refused an attorney.

"I want to leave it in the hands of God," he said.

Six days later, his daughter was buried. Mourners recalled her bright smile, her love of school. Her mother sobbed and shook and looked at her daughter in the white casket, still and small.

• • •

The records include police interviews with those who know Jonchuck, many of whom noticed his increasingly erratic behaviors this past winter.

Jonchuck's stepmother said he wanted to get baptized and had become obsessed with people jumping off the Sunshine Skyway south of the Misener Bridge.

At the home where he had been living, detectives found lines of sea salt that he had poured "to keep the demons from entering the residence," his stepmother said. She said he had been sleeping with a Bible.

Jonchuck's biological mother said he had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but had not been taking his medicine.

A childhood friend told police that Jonchuck had never been religious and that he told her "if he ever did anything to get into big trouble he would claim insanity." He said "he was God and wanted to kill her because she was a demon now."

On Jan. 5, he emailed a friend about "making a mends." He said he got a job as a chef, that he was getting off Social Security, that he wanted forgiveness for acting poorly. He wrote: "It's amazing what life brings when you give up your addictions and what its like to be normal."

"I found the key to unlock my gift," he texted a man named Bryan that same day. "I forgive you all."

Another message read: "Everyday I am one step closer. And I fell like a million bucks thank you for everything."

Bryan told police he did not know what the messages meant.

The day before he drove to the bridge, Jonchuck visited a lawyer's office in Tampa with Phoebe in tow. He wore pajamas.

Lawyer Genevieve Torres was still getting to know her new client, though records told much of the story: a history of arrests, unemployment and domestic strife. He told her that he had taken care of Phoebe for two years. He was to gain full legal custody soon.

In her office, he called himself the Pope and demanded a DNA test. He asked her to read a Bible in Swedish. He asked her to accompany him to a church for his baptism. She said no.

"Don't file the paperwork," he responded. "It's not going to matter anymore."

She called 911.

"He's out of his mind, and he has a minor child with him driving to the church now," Torres told an operator.

Soon, sheriff's deputies found Jonchuck and Phoebe at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Tampa. He said he "did not feel like hurting himself or anyone else."

He told the priest he was the Pope. He asked him to perform an exorcism on him because he was possessed.

• • •

Officer Vickers remained on the catwalk, calling for Phoebe in the darkness. It was 42 degrees.When a Fire Rescue boat arrived, he climbed aboard and began scanning the choppy water. Elsewhere, officers shone flashlights in the mangroves.

At 1:45 a.m., a radio call: She'd been found.

She was floating face-up a half-mile from the bridge. Eckerd College's search and rescue team began CPR. Her back was bruised. Her body was "very pale like a doll," a student rescuer said. She wore a neon Garanimals T-shirt, a cat on the front.

Soon Vickers took over with chest compressions. He stayed by Phoebe until she was taken away.

She was pronounced dead at 2:44 a.m.

Later, a forensic technician cataloguing her clothing noted she wore a gold necklace: a cross.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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