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

With a jury finally picked, opening statements have begun in the trial of John Jonchuck, accused of throwing his daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge.
CLAIRE (4:57 p.m.)

Well, the judge had said we’d be here later, but we’re wrapping before 5 p.m. We’ll be back tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Any questions? None from the jury.

Lawyers have nothing to discuss.

See you tomorrow, the judge says.

ZACK (4:50 p.m.)

Bolan now questioning Wynn about the night Phoebe died. Wynn recalls hearing screeching tires and then seeing a white PT cruiser in Lane Two, where he was working. It had stopped behind another car, backed out and sped over some cones through Lane Three, which was closed.

Wynn says he saw a white man driving.

Remember from openings, this matters because the prosecution plans to use Jonchuck fleeing as evidence he knew he had done something wrong.

Bolan wraps, Manuele asks a quick question about signage at the toll plaza, and then Wynn is excused.

Attorneys approach the bench for a conference. Several jurors stand to stretch their arms and legs.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (4:45 p.m.)

Here’s the state’s second witness, Willie Wynn, a toll collector at the Skyway Plaza. He’s here to establish that Jonchuck sped through the toll plaza after dropping Phoebe.

ZACK AND JOSH (4:38 p.m.)

Many of the observers have left the courtroom, only about five left. This is not Law and Order.

“What’s low-ready mean?” Williams asks Vickers, getting him to explain in detail what he means when he says he drew his weapon but kept it pointed down.

The defense is zooming in on minutiae, making sure the story is straight and everything is on the record. The jurors’ eyes go from Williams to Vickers as both men talk. Few are jotting notes during these exchanges.

Jonchuck stares straight ahead next to McNeill, watching as Vickers demonstrates holding a gun.

Williams finishes his cross-examination. The state declined to ask him redirect questions, so Vickers is excused.

ZACK (4:26 p.m.)

Assistant Public Defender Greg Williams begins cross-examination, delving into minutiae. How many lanes were there on the highway? Is the median lane what we’d call the fast lane?

The defense is conceding in this case that Jonchuck killed Phoebe, which is what Vickers is here to prove — the actions of that night.

Little of what he just said is in dispute. Don’t expect any testy exchanges here.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (4:23 p.m.)

Vickers recognized Phoebe, when he saw the body four years ago, because of her clothes.

And now Bolan asks if he recognizes the person who let her go.

“Do you see the person in this courtroom today who dropped this child off the Dick Misener Bridge?” Bolan asks.

“I do,” Vickers says, and points to Jonchuck. “He’s wearing a green long-sleeve shirt with a blue tie.”

“Are you 100 percent certain?"


Upon being identified by the officer, Jonchuck did nothing except continue to look forward.

That concludes the prosecution’s questioning of Vickers.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (4:21 p.m.)

Vickers looks at a photo of the small wooden walkway above the water he climbed down to from the roadway above. He remembers it was slippery.

"I was calling for some type of a response and also looking for any kind of splashing in the water,” he says.

Bolan asks: “Were you using a flashlight?”

“I was.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“I did not.”

“Did you see anything?”

“I did not.”

ZACK (4:07 p.m.)

Some signposting in the chronology now.

Vickers stands in front of a big map the prosecution printed, showing the jury where he was driving the night Phoebe died, and where he was when she hit the water.

He looks at crime scene photos from that night, identifying his cruiser and the side of the bridge from which Phoebe was dropped, the ladder he climbed down to reach the water and the spot, roughly, where he remembers Jonchuck’s car was and where he dropped Phoebe.

Jonchuck is staring at the pictures on the TV screen behind the officer, a deputy standing over his right shoulder.

This screenshot from Google Maps shows the spot where Officer Drew Vickers pulled in behind Jonchuck on the Dick Misener Bridge on Jan. 8, 2015. Jonchuck dropped Phoebe from here. Prosecutors showed Vickers photos of this location during Vickers' testimony on Monday. Vickers climbed down the ladder after Jonchuck let Phoebe go. [Google Maps]
ZACK AND CLAIRE (3:52 p.m.)

Jonchuck drove off, south on 275 toward the Skyway, after dropping Phoebe.

Vickers ran to the edge of the bridge, looking for anything in the water

“I didn’t see anything,” he recalls.

“It was very cold and windy that night.”

Bolan asks how cold. “I’d say low 40s.”

How windy? Vickers describes gusts of about 20 miles per hour. The water, he says, was rough. “Very dark and cold.”

The officer recalls nearly being blown off a buffer wall by the water by the wind.

Jonchuck is back to rocking, now side to side, in tight little motions.

Vickers says searching in the water was stressful, but the defense objects to say that’s irrelevant. Sustained.

Vickers later learns the Eckerd search crew found Phoebe’s body. She was later transferred to a boat he was on, and he tried to perform compressions to get her breathing again.

He then describes Phoebe’s body in detached terms. “Foamy water came out of the mouth and nose. The eyes had a brownish-red tinge to it and the pupils were nonreactive. ... Cold to the touch.”


Vickers was about one car-length back when they stopped on top of the bridge.

The driver, he said, “began approaching me with something large in his hand.” Vickers, speaking in formal police language, says he drew his weapon, afraid Jonchuck might get violent. He remembers the driver saying, “You have no free will.”

He is not using Jonchuck’s name. For delivering such emotional, awful testimony, Vickers is speaking extraordinarily flatly, in neutral terms. This is all just establishing facts. Jonchuck does not appear to be in the same kind of distress as he was when the prosecution delivered its opening statement.

Vickers calls Phoebe “the child.” He says he thought she was 7 or 8 years old, with long brown hair.

“The lighting was kind of arid, it wasn’t super great, typical highway lighting,” Vickers says, describing a slight orange glow.

The jury seems to be paying close attention, looking quickly back and forth between Vickers, the state attorney and Jonchuck. Jonchuck watches Vickers.

“I was immediately concerned for the child, I advised what radio what happened,” he says.

“I heard a faint scream and a splash.”

ZACK AND CLAIRE (3:42 p.m.)

Bolan, the prosecutor, getting into the night of Phoebe’s death, asks: “Can you tell the jury what you saw?”

Vickers describes a car overtaking him, fast — he estimated 100 mph. A white Chrysler PT Cruiser.

It was just after midnight.

Manuele is scrolling through a deposition on her laptop. Jonchuck is sitting still, mouth slightly open. The jury listens, the same few taking diligent notes.

Vickers recalls the PT Cruiser suddenly braking, leaving a skid mark on the highway, before driving off at a regular speed toward the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Vickers said he called out the tag on the vehicle over his radio.

DERP27, he recalls, referring to his notes to refresh his memory.

The car stopped atop the bridge, Vickers recalls, normally a dangerous place for a traffic stop.

ZACK (3:40 p.m.)

Back in 2015, Vickers said at the time, he wanted to be “prepared to be Phoebe’s voice at trial." He had talked to a counselor.

"I'm the only witness to a terrible, terrible tragedy," he said. "So I have the responsibility to make sure she gets justice."

Today he stares at the jury as he runs through his qualifications. This is a standard process, discussing his resume and training, essentially. He’s now a field training officer, as he was at the time of the crime, just in a different district. Back then, he worked 2 p.m. to midnight.

Bolan is leading him through his testimony with questions. Vickers sits below Helinger, who has tissues on the bench next to her microphone.

ZACK AND CLAIRE (3:37 p.m.)

The state calls its first witness.

St. Petersburg police officer William “Drew” Vickers takes the stand in his police blues and glasses. He received an award several months after Phoebe’s death and spoke to the Times about what he saw. Read about that here.

ZACK (3:27 p.m.)

Quick note during the break: Nothing remarkable in the jail logs documenting some of Jonchuck’s activity from the weekend. Received meals, offered a shower, met with a doctor. Jury still not back, but we expect to hear from Officer Vickers after we return.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (3:10 p.m.)

After he was arrested, Manuele tells the jury, Jonchuck went to the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center, a state-run mental health facility. He was diagnosed with “a severe and persistent mental illness,” she says. “And at the time of offense, he was experiencing psychosis.”

All witnesses but one state witness can agree on that, she says.

Manuele’s getting to the point where she is addressing evidence she expects the state to present.

If jurors start to hear a lot of evidence about a personality disorder, or Jonchuck’s hard childhood, or how tragic the case is, “I suspect they’re trying to distract you” from the totality of the evidence, she says.

State objects, and there’s a short bench conference. The jury takes advantage of the quick break, standing up, stretching. One man groans, two others share a laugh.

Nobody’s disputing the tragedy, Manuele says. But she warns: “If you feel your heartstrings are being intentionally tugged on, pay attention to that.”

It’ll never make sense, she says. But the best way to explain it is a dream sequence.

“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,” Manuele says, the strangest sentence any of us have ever heard spoken in court.

But it’s not your dad. Then the Bart/dad figure asks if you’ve taken your dog out. And you fly back, and you’re concerned you might hit power lines, or an actual airplane.

“That was the most bizarre thing ever. But as you were having that dream, it all made sense," Manuele continues.

You can try to explain that dream later, to a coworker, but it doesn’t makes sense, she says. “The pieces are just missing, and you just can’t put it back together.”

You can’t try to make it make sense, Manuele says. And that’s how this case plays out, she continues.

“Mr. Jonchuck is guilty, but insane. He is guilty for dropping for daughter off, but insane.” Which means: not guilty.

She asks the jury to please make that decision. And that’s a wrap.

Short recess before this will continue.


Manuele jumps forward to the Vickers stop. She’s describing Jonchuck as stone-faced, no reaction when Vickers had him at gunpoint and ordered him back inside the PT Cruiser.

Jonchuck took Phoebe from the car, turned, and let go. In the same calm manner, he got back into the car, she says. When he drove away, it was at a “steady 70 mph.” He pulled a U-turn with his blinker on.

“So was he attempting to evade law enforcement or does he not know what he’s doing?” she asks.

With lights and sirens screaming and his window bashed in, Manuele describes, Jonchuck sat blankly with his hands on the wheel, his seatbelt on.

Manuele describes a hectic scene as officers from several law enforcement agencies descended upon Jonchuck’s vehicle. He was ripped from the car.

“He is in the back of a police car, having just released his daughter of a bridge, and he his asking a police officer if he can have his bible,” Manuele says.

“‘Take me to Babylon,’” she quotes him as saying. “Nonsensical things.”

It’ll be up to the jury to decide if John is in the “here and now” in the video they see of his interview, she explains.

Jonchuck rocks slightly, back and forth. At the prosecution’s table, Ellis and Bolan take notes.

Manuele is back to reading more of Jonchuck’s bizarre statements, this time from his interview after getting apprehended. He asked how Phoebe “was.” Then he asked: “Is she OK?”

She points to that disconnect, among his other ramblings, to say that Jonchuck didn’t understand what was happening.

He asked the officers if he could be let go.

“Certainly, someone who is cognizant would not be asking if he could just be let out of here.”

CLAIRE AND ZACK (2:50 p.m.)

Manuele describes John pacing outside his friend Noemi’s house, holding Phoebe’s hand. He sent Noemi love confessions and bizarre texts of Scripture, she says, despite not being a religious man.

“Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see those text messages either,” Manuele says, because the police chose not to collect them. (Again, she’s trying to sow doubt about the investigation.)

Hard to tell how the jury is taking all of this. The timeline of events being laid out is definitely more disjointed than the state’s straightforward murder narrative.

CLAIRE AND JOSH (2:47 p.m.)

Jonchuck is rocking slightly again as Manuele goes into details of his visit to attorney Genevieve Torres. She quotes Jonchuck’s odd statements from that time, especially about the Swedish bible, with which he had suddenly become obsessed.

This was when, arguably, Jonchuck’s behavior was most erratic, Manuele contends. He called Torres St. Genevieve, then God, then tried to get her to read from the bible -- but she couldn’t read Swedish.

Jonchuck asked Torres if she could keep Phoebe while he went out looking for an exorcism. She said no, and Jonchuck left with his daughter.

But Torres knew: “Something is off. Something is wrong,” Manuele says. “He’s demanding he be baptized today. He’s the Pope. ... It doesn’t make sense.”

When two Hillsborough County deputies met Jonchuck at a church -- called by a concerned Torres -- Jonchuck thought the deputies were there to evaluate his fitness to be a father. Not, as they really were, to conduct a Baker Act evaluation. So Jonchuck answered the questions in such a way as to minimize their concern, according to Manuele. This is the first time we’ve ever heard this perspective on the interaction.

Manuele is straightforwardly recounting Jonchuck’s statements about needing an exorcism, and his march through local churches.

She’s talking slowly, with long pauses.

She mentions odd texts to an estranged uncle about Chinese drywall and Phoebe wailing in the night. Calls to ex-friends. Voicemails telling an old friend she’s possessed by demons. Salt poured around the house, including outside of Phoebe’s room, “to keep the demons away.” (She ruefully notes that the police didn’t take photos, so there’s no evidence of this. Let’s see if this becomes a theme, the defense attacking the thoroughness of the investigation.)

She keeps going, listing “things that just don’t make sense.”

ZACK (2:44 p.m.)

Jonchuck is looking up and at Manuele as she walks through the details of his bizarre behavior in the days before Phoebe’s death. But it’s hard to see his face, obscured by, Jane McNeill, another public defender sitting in the chair next to him.


Manuele stands closer to the jury than Bolan, directly in front of them. She paces a little as she speaks, motioning with her hands.

At 18, Jonchuck moved in with Kerr, Phoebe’s mom, she explains. And at 21, he sought mental health treatment again. He couldn’t hold a job, Manuele says. He couldn’t control his emotions. He was diagnosed with ADD and bipolar disorder.

He was prescribed a litany of medications. Manuele rattles them off, more than a half dozen. He experimented with different combinations to try to find one that worked, she says. In 2013, Jonchuck stopped seeing his doctor, and began rationing his meds to get them to last longer, his lawyer explains.

Both Jonchuck and Kerr had mental health issues, Manuele says. The relationship was tumultuous. “Nobody will deny that."

She adds: “One thing is certain: he loved Phoebe more than anything. There is nobody who will tell you that’s not the case.”

Prosecutors contend he killed Phoebe to punish Kerr. Not the case, Manuele says. For one thing, she explains, Kerr didn’t try particularly hard to fight for custody; a lackadaisical approach to parenthood shows as much.

“So what caused the psychotic break?” she asks. “Because there was a break with reality. Something happened.”

Manuele brings up the Thanksgiving dinner Jonchuck attended with Phoebe; Kerr; Kerr’s fiance, named Guy Kisser; and Jonchuck’s mom. Kisser noticed Jonchuck was outside talking to himself.

Bolan, in his opening for the state, also brought up the Thanksgiving meal. He painted it as a turning point, when Jonchuck met Kisser.

Manuele is walking through Jonchuck’s supposed psychotic break, pointing to erratic handwriting, anxiety that ramps up at night. If it doesn’t make sense, she says, that’s because it never will. Because it’s insanity.

ZACK (2:28 p.m.)

Still a handful of people seeming to watch the trial from the audience. They are quiet, not moving, watching Manuele intently.

A deputy sits by the door, one of three in the room. Another sits next to the jury, and one behind Jonchuck.

Judge Chris Helinger presses her fingers to her lips as she listens to the defense’s opening statement.

CLAIRE (2:25 p.m.)

The defense doesn’t pull punches. Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele begins by saying what happened that night was tragic. Jonchuck took his daughter, whom he loved more than anybody in the world, and dropped her off of the side of the Dick Misener bridge.

“It didn’t make sense at the time. It doesn’t make sense today. It will never make sense. Because it is insanity.”

Manuele calls him Mr. Jonchuck. He’s a victim here. As a small child, from five years old, until age 14, he went to USF to get treatment for something to do with his psychiatric state, Manuele says. He had counseling and medications. But his family can’t tell you his diagnosis, who cared for him. It wasn’t the priority.

She’s pacing, hands knit. “From a very young age, John was treated as a hot potato.” From mom to dad, to uncles, to dad again, John gets “dumped.”

Same as earlier, jurors sit with straight faces. A few keep up the note-taking. Jonchuck is bouncing very slightly in his chair.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (2:20 p.m.)

When Jonchuck was held in an interview room at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office after his arrest, there were cameras. Jonchuck said some things that may seem peculiar, Bolan says, but he was in the “here and now.”

Bolan keeps repeating those words. Jonchuck was, Bolan says, in the here and now. What matters is that Jonchuck knew why he was there, Bolan is saying.

Bolan brings up Melody Dishman, a friend of Jonchuck’s. In previous Times reporting, Dishman said that Jonchuck had told her that if he ever got into big trouble, he would claim insanity.

Before Bolan can say anything beyond Dishman’s name, the defense objects. The judge has all five attorneys -- three for the defense and two for the state -- up for a bench conference to work out the disagreement.

During this brief break, jurors stretch and yawn, make small talk, chug water. Two use the time to catch up on notes.

After the bench conference, Bolan says there are witnesses who will explain that Jonchuck felt he and Phoebe needed to both die to prevent everybody from going to hell. The jury will note, Bolan says, that only one person went over the railing that day.

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

Phoebe was a light to her, a reason to be a better person and loving grandmother.

Jonchuck was sane, Bolan says. He did it. Now hold him responsible.

“There is only one verdict that is true in this case," the prosecutor argues. Guilty of first-degree murder.

With that, Bolan completes his opening statement.

ZACK (2:18 p.m.)

Bolan is describing a vengeance killing.

“You will see that the defendant John Jonchuck Jr. committed this murder to punish his mother and the mother of Phoebe Jonchuck,” he says.

Behind him, Jonchuck stares at the prosecutor, blinking but otherwise still.

Paul Bolen, a trial attorney for the prosecution, makes a dropping motion with his arms during opening arguments to illustrate for the jury the moment defendant John Jonchuck dropped his daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck off the Dick Misener Bridge near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, January 8, 2015. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK (2:12 p.m.)

Jonchuck is back to looking down as Bolan talks about the hours before Phoebe died, when he met with a priest, asking to be baptized. He circled through several churches in Hillsborough County.

He had a dinner of scrambled eggs, breakfast for supper, made by his father.

He told his mother he would take Phoebe to school the next day, Bolan says.

He emailed his attorney, saying his mom would drop off a payment.

Jonchuck is rocking side to side in the courtroom, almost shimmying in his seat.

Prosecutors believe he left his father’s house for the last time about 10:30 p.m.

Jonchuck looks up. His attorneys whisper to each other. He stares at Bolan in the middle of the courtroom.

It has been more than 1,500 days since that night.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (2:10 p.m.)

Bolan says maybe Jonchuck’s behavior makes him look crazy.

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

The hours before Jonchuck dropped his daughter, his custody lawyer, Genevieve Torres, called 911 concerned for Phoebe. Two Hillsborough deputies said Jonchuck didn’t meet the requirements for the Baker Act, which allows law enforcement officers to take people into involuntary medical custody if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

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

CLAIRE (2:05 p.m.)

At the time Jonchuck fills out a custody petition with attorney Genevieve Torres, nothing seems wrong, Bolan says. No mental health boxes get checked.

Sure, Jonchuck said some things that might sound pretty weird, Bolan says. But Jonchuck said one thing to the lawyer that Bolan thinks the jury should note. “None of this will matter anymore.”

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger listens to opening arguments in the John Jonchuck murder trial. SCOTT KEELER | Times
JOSH (2:04 p.m.)

I wasn’t expecting Bolan to get into Jonchuck’s life before Phoebe’s death. I anticipated the prosecution would focus on the incident and the immediate aftermath. But Bolan is telling the jury that Jonchuck did not suffer from mental illness before the incident, and that Phoebe was at the center of a custody dispute. It sounds like he’s touching on potential motive to kill Phoebe.

Jonchuck and Phoebe’s mother, Michelle Kerr, had split up. In the months before Phoebe died, Kerr began dating a new man. There were angry texts between the two of them.

“Things are simmering with this defendant because he sees the likelihood that he’s about to lose this child,” Bolan says.

ZACK (2:01 p.m.)

As Bolan continues his statements, he repeatedly refers to Jonchuck by name.

“The man sitting here, John Jonchuck Jr.. committed this murder of his daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck,” the prosecutor says, bluntly.

Jonchuck rubs his head, resting his chin in his left palm, fingers just below his temple.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (1:55 p.m.)

Now Bolan is running down the list of crimes with which the jury could convict Jonchuck. Of course, there’s first-degree murder, which is the charge Jonchuck faces. Now Bolan is explaining felony murder, which is the when somebody dies during the commission of a crime. The crime, Bolan explained, was aggravated child abuse.

Next Bolan touches on insanity. That’s what the defense will argue, that Jonchuck was insane at the time of the crime. It’s the defense’s burden to prove insanity, he reminds the jury.

The definition of insanity is important, Bolan says. Someone isn’t insane just because they have a mental illness. Or just because they say something that sounds strange. Under the definition, Bolan says, Jonchuck would have had to not know what he was doing, or to not know it was wrong.

The evidence, Bolan says, will show Jonchuck knew what he was doing. And that he knew it was wrong. And therefore, the prosecutor says, the jury will have to find Jonchuck was not insane.

That’s the burden, Bolan says, the defense must meet.

He knew what he did, Bolan says. He knew he killed his child, so he ran.

It would be easy to say he was insane. But look deeper, “beyond the superficial,” Bolan says.

CLAIRE AND JOSH (1:52 p.m.)

Premeditation. The decision has to be present in the mind at the time of the killing, Bolan says, walking through the definition. At least three jurors are taking notes. One squints hard, leaning forward, before turning back to his notepad.

There is no set time, Bolan explained, for premeditation. The law doesn’t require a certain amount of time passes between the idea to kill and the killing. There simply has to be enough time to reflect

“The facts of this case will prove the defendant had time to reflect,” Bolan said.

CLAIRE AND JOSH (1:49 p.m.)

Again Bolan points at Jonchuck.

After tossing Phoebe, he decided to go back toward Tampa, where he had come from, the prosecutor says. Bolan’s point: That moment of decision matters.

Jonchuck didn’t stop, “desperate to get away,” Bolan says, despite lights and sirens blazing. He made a U-turn, sending a police officer swerving out of the way. Jonchuck was speeding the wrong way down the highway, with police officers in pursuit.

The officers, at some point, crossed back over to I-75 going the right direction. But Jonchuck kept driving south in the northbound lanes.

At this point, Bolan tells the jury, St. Petersburg police were joined by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol.

It ultimately took road spikes to shatter Jonchuck’s tires and bring him to a stop.

Jonchuck has his hands in front of his eyes. He’s not moving.

Bolan delivers a punchline to the jury. After Jonchuck stopped driving, he wouldn’t obey orders to unlock his door. Officers had to break the window. But they still struggled to get him out. Why?

“Because after all that he had done, he still buckled his seat belt for safety,” Bolan says, following with a long pause.

CLAIRE AND JOSH (1:45 p.m.)

Next, Bolan pivots to the Eckerd College students, who have a rescue team and were activated to look for Phoebe. They found her body, pulled her into their boat. The students met a fire department crew, and Vickers, who was on that boat, administered CPR. Phoebe was beyond help.

“It’s no use at this point. She is dead,” Bolan says. “She is cold to the touch. She’s not breathing. There’s no pulse. They never ever have any signs of life.”

The juror in red, who was fidgeting earlier, covers her mouth with her hand.

The details are horrific. Frothy liquid in the lungs. Bruises on her back. Bolan warns that the pictures will be hard to stomach.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (1:40 p.m.)

All Vickers sees in the water is blackness, Bolan says. He never sees the girl.

He climbs down a ladder looking for Phoebe, shining his flashlight on the water from a catwalk below the bridge.

He radios what happened.

“At this point,” Bolan says, “police officers all over St. Petersburg know what just happened, that a man threw a child off the bridge.”

A few jurors are taking notes. One woman in red fidgets as Bolan walks through the details of Phoebe’s body lost in the water. Most are still, though, listening. Jonchuck’s hands are pulling down on his face as he sits, looking down.

“Eventually, she is found, about 90 minutes later” in the water of Tampa Bay, Bolan says. Her body has drifted east.

ZACK (1:39 p.m.)

Jonchuck stares down as Bolan speaks, describing a play-by-play of the night Phoebe died.

“You have no free will,” Bolan says, quoting what the police officer remembers Jonchuck saying atop the bridge. In the courtroom, Jonchuck does not look up.

“His gun is at the ready. He’s been trained for this moment,” Bolan says, explaining the tension of that night atop the bridge. Jonchuck lifts his head and rocks slightly, back and forth in his seat.

“Five-year-old blond-haired little girl,” Bolan says. “Named Phoebe.”

Jonchuck raises his hands, covering his eyes.

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

Jonchuck pulls his fingers over his mouth.

“He flees,” the prosecutor says.

Jonchuck’s eyes are closed.

“He has effectively murdered his child in that moment,” Bolan explains. Jonchuck raises his fingers to his cheeks, cradling his chin in his hands.


Prosecutor Paul Bolan gives the opening statement for the prosecution. He starts by telling the jury the perspective of St. Petersburg police officer William “Drew” Vickers, who was on his way home Jan. 8, 2015, approaching the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, when he saw a white Chrysler PT Cruiser.

“He put in a long day, and he was going home his normal route,” Bolan says.

The prosecutor points at the witness stand. Vickers will be there soon. Bolan promises that Vickers will tell them about the gusting wind, the choppy waters. The white PT cruiser speeding wildly down the highway.

The jury listens. Some have their chins tilted back, appraising. One white-haired man listens with his hand on his chin.

Vickers had not activated his lights or sirens. He pulled behind the PT Cruiser as it came to a stop atop the Dick Misener Bridge, on the approach to the Skyway.

Then, Bolan says , Jonchuck got out of the car. Vickers didn’t know what to expect, but feared a confrontation. He drew his gun.

Jonchuck said to the officer: “You have no free will.” Then he walked to the passenger side of his car and reached in. Vickers expected to see a gun.

Instead, Jonchuck lifted out a child.

“A 5-year-old, blonde-haired, little girl,” Bolan says. "Named Phoebe.”

Jonchuck turned, the prosecutor explained, and he let go of the little girl.

Vickers heard her scream. Then Jonchuck drove off.

Faces in the jury seats are impassive. They’re watching Bolan, who’s talking with his hands, pacing as he walks through the minutes of that night.

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

ZACK (1:27 p.m.)

Jonchuck continues staring straight at the bench, completely still, not looking at the jury as Helinger instructs them on the trial process.

“Your verdict must based solely on the evidence or lack of evidence,” the judge says, as the deputy behind Jonchuck leans back in his chair. The prosecutors and defense wait.

Along the wall of the courtroom, a TV videographer points his camera at the judge.

CLAIRE AND JOSH (1:25 p.m.)

Here comes the jury. At first glance, mostly white, mostly middle-aged or older. They take their seats in three rows at the left side of the courtroom and look around.

Was anybody exposed to news about the trial? Helinger asks. Media, radio, your friends? Instagram, or whatever it’s called?

All shake their heads no. Right hands go up.

Helinger reads them the jury instructions. Jonchuck is charged with murder, she says, but the indictment she read them last week during jury selection is not evidence. Then, she explains how the trial is conducted. First, the opening statements. That is just a framework and is not evidence. Then, witnesses are called to testify under oath, along with documents or other evidence that may be presented. Then, there are closing arguments.

After that, they will retired to the jury room to consider their verdict, which should be based solely on the evidence. They are not to make up their minds until all the evidence is presented.

Next, the judge addresses publicity and communication about the case. Jurors are not to talk about the case or look up any information about the case.

The jury is made up of nine men and seven women. All eyes seem to be on the judge.

Defendant John Jonchuck listens to a description of Phoebe's death during opening statements in his trial. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK (1:19 p.m.)

Jonchuck is staring straight ahead at the bench, not looking over to the prosecutors as they speak. The courtroom is set up with the Doug Ellis and Paul Bolan, assistant state attorneys, at a table to the left, and Jonchuck to the right, seated next to public defenders Jessica Manuele, Greg Williams and Jane McNeill. There’s a deputy in green seated just over Jonchuck’s right shoulder. There are about eight people in the audience who are not members of the media, unclear their connection to the case at this point.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (1:18 p.m.)

A few items before openings begin:

First, both sides signed paperwork to stipulate that Phoebe is the victim in this case.

Next, today the defense filed two motions to exclude testimony. The first relates to any evidence that Phoebe was afraid of water and that she couldn’t swim.

Paul Bolan, a prosecutor, argues those details are extremely relevant and go toward intent, which, he points out, the defense made clear during selection that the state has the responsibility to prove.

The judge denies the motion.

“I think that’s relevant as to the motive and intent, and it’s also relevant as to whether she would be able to survive,” says Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Chris Helinger. “Because people who are afraid of the water don’t do as well.”

The second motion to exclude asks the state to follow evidence rules. The defense doesn’t want testimony about his propensity to commit crime or his prior criminal record. They also don’t want any reference to Jonchuck’s drug use, except where they might have played a role in Phoebe’s death.

“It’s gonna be kind of weird, though, are they just not going to talk about drugs at all?” Judge Helinger says.

“What we’re trying to keep from happening is these doctors saying, ‘When he was 16, he was high on coke.’ ... Well, so what?,” defense attorney Greg Williams says. “We can’t unring that bell.”

One last thing before the jurors are called in: the judge asked the defense if they would like her to reread Jonchuck’s right to remain silent in front of the jurors. The thinking is, if he chooses not to testify, the jurors shouldn’t hold that against him.

JOSH (1:05 p.m.)

The judge says hello to Jonchuck when he walked into the courtroom Monday afternoon.

“Good afternoon Mr. Jonchuck.,” she says.

“Good morning, Your Honor,” he responds.

“We’re past that,” the judge says in reply.”

“Oh, sorry,” he says, chuckling.

ZACK (12:57 p.m.)

We’re in session, but the jury is not yet in the room. Sgt. Kenneth Miller, formerly a detective from the St. Petersburg Police Department, hauled one box full of evidence into the courthouse this afternoon. It is full of potential exhibits for the trial.

Miller was one of the lead investigators on the homicide investigation into Phoebe’s death.

Jonchuck entered the courtroom at 12:59 p.m. wearing a green shirt and a tie.

He said good morning to Judge Chris Helinger.

“We’re past that, we’re in the afternoon," she said.

“Oh, sorry,” Jonchuck replied.

JOSH (10:30 a.m.)

Good morning. Opening statements are set to begin this afternoon. Here’s some analysis on what we can expect:

The prosecution will likely focus on the facts of Phoebe’s death and the immediate aftermath. That means the scene on the bridge when Jonchuck dropped Phoebe in front of a St. Petersburg police officer, the pursuit down Interstate 75 to capture Jonchuck and the recovery of Phoebe’s body in Tampa Bay. It’s not necessarily to the state’s advantage to address insanity, except to remind jurors that the defense has the burden of proving Jonchuck was insane at the time.

The pursuit could prove to be critical. For the jury to find that Jonchuck is not guilty by reason of insanity, jurors will need to believe Jonchuck didn’t know what he was doing when he let his daughter go, or didn’t know it was wrong to do so. Fleeing from police could be construed as a sign he knew what he did was wrong.

The defense already said during jury selection last week that they do not plan to dispute Jonchuck was the man behind Phoebe’s death. The public defenders during their opening statements will likely shed light on Jonchuck’s erratic behavior in the weeks, days and hours before Phoebe’s death to try to establish that Jonchuck’s mental health had deteriorated in hopes the jury find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Also, public defender Jane McNeill made sure prospective jurors understood that to convict Jonchuck of first-degree murder, the state has the burden of proving premeditation. It could be the defense will push for a lesser conviction. It sounds like they may say the jury should find Jonchuck not guilty, but if it does convict him, it should be for second-degree murder, not first-degree.


It took all week, but they finally picked a jury: nine men and seven women.

With the tedious part over, the murder trial of John Jonchuck - accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge in 2015 - can now begin. Opening statements are set for 1 p.m. today.

The prosecutors will go first. It’s their job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jonchuck is guilty of premeditated murder. Then the defense will go. Jonchuck’s attorneys have already said they will not contest that Jonchuck did it. However, they will argue he was insane at the time, and therefore should be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Then the prosecution will begin calling witnesses.

Read our previous coverage of the case below:

Timeline and who’s who

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

The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

The trial of John Jonchuck: Why we’ll be there every day