John Jonchuck trial begins with competing narratives over vengeance and insanity

Prosecutors and defense attorneys lay out their cases in opening statements Monday, and the only witness to Phoebe’s death takes the stand.
Published March 25
Updated March 25

LARGO — John Jonchuck held his head in his hands Monday as the prosecutor told the jury what a sole witness saw the night Jonchuck dropped his daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge.

St. Petersburg police officer William “Drew” Vickers had his gun drawn as he approached Jonchuck’s white Chrysler PT Cruiser. The officer, who had been driving home about midnight after his shift, didn’t know what would come next. But he anticipated a firefight.

On the bridge, Jonchuck reached into his car; Vickers yelled for his hands. Jonchuck emerged with the girl.

In court, Jonchuck stared downward and often gaped as he listened to the prosecutor, Paul Bolan, deliver opening statements in his long-awaited murder trial.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: The trial of John Jonchuck: Daily live blog and everything you need to know about the case

LIVE BLOG: The Trial of John Jonchuck, Day 6: Watch the opening statements

THE CASE: The trial of John Jonchuck comes down to one question: Evil or insane?

THE JURY: Long days, long week, but finally, a jury for Jonchuck

THE VICTIM: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

More than 1,500 days have passed since Jonchuck dropped Phoebe 62 feet into the water, sending the region into mourning and prompting an examination of the state’s child protection rules.

Jonchuck, to the right of to his three public defenders, sat rigidly as Bolan walked through the jury through Phoebe’s death. It was the first time in court Jonchuck seemed to flinch, even as he was forced to listen to his indictment over and over last week during five grueling days of jury selection.

“Five-year-old blonde-haired little girl,” Bolan said. “Named Phoebe.”

Jonchuck, in a sage green button-down shirt and blue tie, covered his eyes.

Later: “The officer heard her scream on her way down.”

Jonchuck pulled his fingers over his mouth.

“He has effectively murdered his child in that moment,” Bolan said.

• • •

Bolan paced in front of the jurors, who sat with chins tilted up. Intent was his theme, as he worked to paint the outline of a premeditated killing with roots in custody strife and rage.

Bolan started with Vickers’ story. He described the choppy waters, the gusting wind, the PT Cruiser, and how Jonchuck fled after letting his daughter go.

“He knows, not only that he committed this crime, but that an officer saw it," Bolan said. "So he can’t wait.”

He set out the grim details of Phoebe lost and found in the black water as jurors wrote notes on legal pads. He described her body as cold to the touch, with frothy liquid in her lungs and bruises on her back. One juror covered her mouth with her hand. Jonchuck, with two hands, did the same.

Bolan described moments of decision, like Jonchuck's turn back toward Tampa, "desperate to get away," with officers now in pursuit. Officers needed road spikes to shatter his tires.

It’s the defense’s burden to prove insanity, Bolan reminded the jury, adding that it would be easy to say Jonchuck was insane. But he urged them to look “beyond the superficial,” promising to prove that Jonchuck knew what he was doing, and knew it was wrong.

For instance, he said the jury wouldn't see any evidence that Jonchuck had issues of psychosis before Phoebe's death. And he explained that two deputies had evaluated Jonchuck shortly before Phoebe's death and weighed whether he was a threat to himself or others. They decided he wasn't.

“We have a man here who’s not psychotic," Bolan said. "He knows what’s going on. He’s in the here and now.”

As Bolan spoke, Jonchuck shook his head.

Some of Jonchuck's behavior was erratic, Bolan admitted.

“But the word crazy is not the jury instructions,” he said. “It’s not the law.”

Moreover, he urged them to take into account Jonchuck’s custody squabbles and familial friction. Phoebe's mother, Michelle Kerr, was dating a new man, he said, and Jonchuck feared losing custody of Phoebe. And he had long held onto anger for his own mother, who now cared for Phoebe in a way she never had for him.

“Things are simmering with this defendant because he sees the likelihood that he’s about to lose this child,” Bolan said. He was angry, stung by rejection, Bolan said, his world shifting beneath his feet.

The prosecutor said Jonchuck was looking to lash out — that the murder wasn't the product of a psychotic break.

“You will see that John Jonchuck committed this murder to punish his own mother and the mother of Phoebe Jonchuck,” Bolan said. “He told his mother before the murder that he would ‘f--- up the rest of her life,’ and he made good on that promise.”

Now, he asked the jury, hold him responsible.

• • •

Don’t try to make sense of what happened, public defender Jessica Manuele urged the jurors.

“It didn’t make sense at the time,” she began in her opening statement. “It doesn’t make sense today. It will never make sense. Because it is insanity.”

The defense isn’t arguing Jonchuck didn’t do it. Before opening statements, they signed paperwork stipulating Phoebe was the victim, so prosecutors don’t have to prove it. The only chance his lawyers have for keeping Jonchuck out of prison for the rest of his life is convincing the jury of insanity the moment he let Phoebe go.

So Manuele went back to Jonchuck’s youth, when he was getting inconsistent mental health treatment for unknown ailments, his family providing medication, but for what they didn’t know.

He was passed around as a kid, “a hot potato.” From mom to dad, to uncles, to dad again, John got “dumped.”

He sought treatment again as a young adult. He couldn’t hold a job, Manuele said. He couldn’t control his emotions. He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder.

He was prescribed a litany of medications. Manuele rattled them off, more than a half dozen. He experimented with different combinations to try to find one that worked. Then in 2013, he stopped seeing his doctor and began rationing his medication to get them to last longer, she said.

She described a 2014 Thanksgiving meal at Denny’s, when Jonchuck dined across from Phoebe’s mother’s new boyfriend. It was an episode prosecutors characterized as a breaking point for Jonchuck that sparked jealousy and rage. Manuele recast it as an example of Jonchuck’s deteriorated mental state. He was talking to himself, she said.

She told the jury of his erratic behavior in front of his custody lawyer hours before Phoebe’s death. His strangely detached manner as he was apprehended.

He was not in the “here and now” as Bolan described him, she argued.

Think about it like a dream sequence, she said.

“You have a dream where you fly on your pancake to China and you’re met by Bart Simpson, but it’s actually your dad,” she said, waving her arms wide, marking the strangest moment thus far in an already extraordinary case. There’s a dog in this dream, and you’re worried your flying pancake is going to hit a power line.

It doesn’t make sense afterward, she said. You can’t try to make it make sense. But while you were in the dream, the pieces fit.

What she said is certain is that Jonchuck loved his daughter more than anything. And yet he dropped her from a bridge.

That, like the dream that doesn’t make sense, she said, is insanity.

• • •

Officer Vickers had more than four years to prepare to testify about the night Phoebe died.

Raised Baptist, he thought God would only give people what they could handle, and he had a duty “to be Phoebe's voice at trial."

"I'm the only witness to a terrible, terrible tragedy," he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2015. "So I have the responsibility to make sure she gets justice."

When he finally took the stand, Vickers wore dark, thick-rimmed glasses and a pressed blue uniform. He spoke in a flat tone and did not refer to Jonchuck by name. He called Phoebe “the child.”

Bolan led Vickers through the timeline of that night, asking specific questions about what he saw and heard. By the time the prosecutor finished, a defense attorney had little to question on cross-examination. Vickers was meant to establish that Jonchuck killed Phoebe, something Jonchuck’s lawyers will not dispute.

The jury paid close attention as Vickers talked, eyes darting between him and Bolan.

The highway lights were dim, a little orange, the officer remembered, and gusty wind buffeted him on an already brisk night. He was worried — the top of the bridge was a terrible place to stop — and drew his gun as the man from the white PT Cruiser walked toward him.

Vickers remembers the man saying to him: “You have no free will.”

He thought that the girl he saw fall to the water was 7 or 8 years old. He remembers seeing her long hair.

“I heard a faint scream,” Vickers said, “and a splash.”

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at (727) 893-8804 or zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow @zacksampson. Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill.

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