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The Trial of John Jonchuck Day 8: Proving the murder

Watch prosecutors continue to call witnesses in their effort to prove Jonchuck is guilty.


CLAIRE (4:05 p.m.)

After that, Helinger tells the jury it’s quitting time a few hours early. They’re pleasantly surprised, seems like, and the judge tells them to plan for a full 9 to 6 tomorrow.

ZACK (4 p.m.)

Velez says she went to Starbucks about 10:45 p.m.

The apartment complex was called Oakwood, in South Tampa.

She says she saw the man and the little girl get into a car and drive off.

Williams wraps. Helinger asks if the jurors want a break before cross. They shake their heads no.

Ellis comes up to question Velez.

“You didn’t see him on the phone?” the prosecutor asks.

“No,” she says.

“You didn’t see him with a phone?”


Ellis hands Velez a transcript showing she said the man put the child in the back seat of the car before driving off. But she doesn’t remember seeing that now.

After the car left the complex, she says, she did not see where it went.

That’s it. She’s excused.

Tara Velez testifies in the murder trial of John Jonchuck on Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE (3:48 p.m.)

Tara Velez is here, called by the defense. She is 41 years old and lives in South Tampa. She’s a property manager.

She called the police about the case early on Jan. 8, 2015, as soon as she got into work and heard from a coworker that something terrible had happened, she says. She saw the story on the news and called 911.

She told police what she knew on the phone. Later she received notice to visit the State Attorney’s Office.

“The person you saw on the news was the person you’d seen the night before?” Williams asks.

They go back to 2015. Velez was living in an apartment complex. She and a friend went to Starbucks and her friend drove them back to the apartment. It was a cold night, she remembers. They stayed in the car chatting.

“I see a man walking with a little girl pacing in front of my staircase,” she says. They were holding hands. The girl wore shorts, a light sweater, socks. No shoes.

This bothered her: “I’m a mom, it was really cold out. It was late at night. And the little girl didn’t have what should have been on her to be out in the cold.”

The man looked lost, she said. She didn’t recognize him.

Jonchuck talks to Manuele and shakes his head at the defense table.

The man kept pacing, maybe for five minutes, Velez says.

“What did your maternal instincts tell you?” Williams asks.

“Something wasn’t right,” she says.

Velez looks at the jury and explains that the man appeared like he had a lot on his mind, “just lost,” even “clueless.”

“Was he in the here and now, or did it look like he was not all there?” Williams says.

“He looked like somebody who had 1,000 thoughts running through their head,” Velez says.

ZACK AND CLAIRE (3:35 p.m.)

Michele Jonchuck came back into John Jr.’s life when Phoebe was born, John’s dad says, to the point where the two would even stay with her.

Ellis asks when John Sr. last saw his granddaughter.

“This happened on the 8th, correct?” John Sr. asks. He says they were still at his house, he believes, at 10 or 10:30 p.m. the night before. He did not hear them leave. He was surprised when he woke up the next morning that his son and granddaughter were not at his house.

“He was acting like John?” Ellis says.

“Pretty much, yeah,” John Sr. replies.

Another break as the defense team decides if it has more questions.

John Sr. looks tired. He rubs his eyebrows, then coughs and glances around the courtroom. The defense attorneys talk among themselves. The judge looks up at the ceiling while she waits. Jurors look at the defense table. John Jr. sits alone, staring down as his attorneys whisper.

“Nothing further, your honor,” Williams says.

But we pause. A juror in the top of the box has a question. She passes it on a sheet of paper to a deputy, who gives it to the judge. “I don’t know if it can be answered,” the woman says.

Helinger says she and the lawyers will decide.

John Sr. waits on the stand.

“Can we ask what dates he was Baker Acted in the past, or what the reasons were?” Helinger says, reading the question.

“I can’t be specific actually,” John Sr. says. “I mean once I Baker Acted him, I couldn't give you the date to that but that was because he attacked me. Another time I think they Baker Acted him because he stabbed himself in the arm, and another time I know he had himself Baker Acted...” he mumbles, but it sounds like he says something about an arrest.

John Jr. sits impassively while his father talks.

As John Sr. leaves the courtroom, neither he nor his son look at each other.

Outside, he declines to speak further. “I never gave an interview, I’m not about to,” he says.

Defense attorney Greg Williams watches as John Jonchuck Sr. enters the courtroom Wednesday. His son, John Jonchuck Jr., watches in the background, center. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE AND ZACK (3:24 p.m.)

The night Phoebe died, John Jr. and she were at John Sr.’s house. They had breakfast for dinner, scrambled eggs and sausage. Michele Jonchuck was there, too.

John Sr. says he had no reason to believe John Jr. was drinking or doing drugs that night.

Williams sits down. Ellis gets up to cross-examine Jonchuck’s dad. He asks if John Jr. had a strong work ethic. No, his dad says. He didn’t keep jobs long; he bounced from place to place.

John Jr. left his dad’s house at 18 “because he damaged my house, scared my wife and I threw him out.”

“So bad you had to clean it up with a shovel and a trash can, right?” Ellis asks, and dad says yes.

“When he gets angry, he destroys things...” Ellis begins, but the defense objects. Another bench conference.

John Sr.’s testimony has now been paused multiple times. The jurors are standing and stretching during the break, clearly fatigued.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (3:18 p.m.)

John Sr. says his son was Baker Acted (taken into involuntary custody because he was deemed a threat to himself or others) between three and five times.

In the courtroom, John Jr. shakes his head side to side.

John Sr. says he had his son Baker Acted and, to the best that the father can remember, his son sought to Baker Act himself as well.

John Jr. and Phoebe lived back and forth between John Sr.’s house, his mom’s house and a friend’s house.

Williams is now asking about the Swedish Bible, which was passed down through generations of Mickey’s family.

“Did John, when he was a child, have an interest in that Bible?”

“When he was a child, no,” John Sr. says.

Williams asks if John Jr. became interested in it at the end of 2014. John Sr. says yes, probably right after Christmas. Mickey, he recalls, allowed his son to hang onto it.

“I’m sure it sat in his car. ... I want to say he didn’t have it constantly,” John Sr. says.

“Did he ever tell you that he talked to a priest,” Williams asks.

John Sr. exhales, trying to remember. “Not to my knowledge. I think I heard...” but then Ellis objects. Helinger sustains it.

Williams asks a new question. Around Christmas, did John pour salt around the house?


Around the windows, John Sr. says. Williams asks if John Jr. poured salt around the door to Phoebe’s bedroom.

“I don’t know about that,” John Sr. says.

“Did he tell you what it was for?” Williams asks.

Ellis objects. During a bench conference, John Jr. talks to McNeill. She has her hand on his back and is leaning close to hear him.

Williams comes back and switches to asking about the doctor at USF. Did they prescribe medication? After a while, yes.

“Once he got on the medicine, he started school,” John Sr. says.

Williams returns to the salt, asking if John Jr. told his father why he spread it around.

“Apparently, to keep out evil spirits,” John Sr. says.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (3:07 p.m.)

Williams asks if John Sr. ever took John Jr. to see a doctor.

“A lot of daycares, he was thrown out of them,” John Sr. says, and the state objects. Attorneys approach the bench. They continue; John Sr. says yes, after he was thrown out of daycares, they went to see a doctor at the University of South Florida. And where was Michele? “Possibly incarcerated,” John Sr. says.

Williams pauses to talk to his co-counsel. John Sr. looks straight ahead, not at his son.

“Were there times Michele Jonchuck said she was coming to get him?” Williams asks. Yes, John Sr. says, but she wouldn’t show up most of the time.

When John Jr. was young, living with his father and Mickey, the family did not regularly go to church. John Sr. says he never knew his son to be a churchgoer.

John Sr. says he has probably met Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother, about 10 times. Williams asks about when John Jr. told his family she was pregnant. He seemed happy. And when Phoebe was born, John Jr. often had her in his care. John Jr. and Phoebe periodically lived with John Sr.

John Sr. says John loved Phoebe and he never saw him hurt the girl.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (2:58 p.m.)

Williams asks why John Sr. and Michele Jonchuck split.

“She spent all my money,” he says plainly. “On drugs.”

Probably crack, needles, he says.

John Sr. says he became aware of Michele’s intravenous drug use when young John was about two. She kept their son. Senior went to work in Nashville. At one point, Michele came and dropped John Jr. off in Nashville, then left, John Sr. doesn’t know where to. After that, she didn’t play a role in raising John Jr., he says. They were in Nashville for half a year, then moved to Atlanta, then back to Tampa, he says.

John Jr. is looking ahead at his dad, mouth open, and watching as he talks.

The jurors are watching John Sr., who looks small on the witness stand. He has a long white horseshoe mustache. He is matter-of-fact as he remembers his son’s childhood.

“When I first got him, he was four,” John Sr. says.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (2:52 p.m.)

The defense calls John Jonchuck, Sr., the defendant’s dad.

John Jr. is looking to his left. He turns back and sees his father walk in, wearing a blue suit, long white hair held back with an elastic. Jonchuck mouths something to Manuele. He does not appear as distressed as when he saw his mother yesterday.

Senior talks slowly.

“Do you ever go by the name Doug?” Williams asks. “Is there anyone in your family named Doug?”

They establish that Jonchuck, the son, has a cousin named Doug.

So who’s Michelle? There’s Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother. There’s Michele Jonchuck, John’s mom. And John Jr.’s stepmom, another Michelle, nicknamed Mickey.

John Sr. was briefly married to Michele Jonchuck, then remarried to Mickey. That’s how we’ll refer to those two women.

Senior and Michele met in the late 80s, marrying in 1989 right before John was born, and they separated after two years.

“When Michelle was pregnant with Johnny was she using drugs?” Williams asks.

“Not to my knowledge but after the time I realized it was possible.” John Sr. replies.

John Jonchuck Sr. testifies in the murder trial of his son, John Jonchuck Jr.. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE AND ZACK (2:45 p.m.)

The defense calls St. Pete PD’s Troy Harper. Jurors will recognize him, as he’s already been a witness for the prosecution.

Harper worked as a detective on this case. Williams asks if, while investigating Phoebe’s death, Harper got a tip about a traffic incident in Tampa involving a white PT Cruiser late the night Phoebe died (the same incident jurors just saw on video).

Williams asks whether the officer thought the information could be relevant, and Harper says yes, he followed that lead.

Harper says he did talk to Michelle Kerr, Phoebe’s mother, while investigating the Jonchuck case. Members of the media were already there when the detectives arrived. They were packing up and leaving.

Harper also spoke with Bryan Morris, who showed him text messages he’d exchanged with Jonchuck. We know from previous reporting that Morris is Jonchuck’s uncle.

Harper read through the messages from a period of about three days, and had Morris send him screenshots. In the first text, from Jan. 3, 2015, Jonchuck wrote to say “there is Chinese drywall stuff” at his mom’s house making food go bad and “making her and the baby sick.” He sent a photo of an empty bowl.

Later, he wrote: “The canned fruits have been smelling like rotten eggs.” He also added that Phoebe was having panic attacks.

Jonchuck is looking at Harper read these messages. His head is tilted slightly to the left.

Some of Jonchuck’s sentences end with periods, others with exclamation points, in the messages, Harper says.

A few jurors are taking notes.

On Jan. 4th, more messages from Jonchuck to Morris. One read: “Please don’t give up on me,” “If I had only listened to you guys years ago” and “Just wanted to say I love y’all.” Morris did not respond. Another message came through, “Every day I’m one step closer, and I feel like a million bucks.” Morris again did not respond.

Another cluster of messages came on Monday Jan. 5, which started at 7:05 a.m. “Doug is my father,” Jonchuck wrote to Morris. (We know his father’s name is John Jonchuck Sr.)

Jonchuck is talking to Manuele as the testimony continues, then looking at something on the defense table.

Onto another message from Jonchuck to Morris, “I found the key to unlock my gift.”

Then: “And I’m going to do everything I can to get him out of there.”

“Who’s him?” Williams asks.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Harper replies.

Last message 9:13 a.m. that day: “I forgive you all.”

Defendant John Jonchuck enters the courtroom after a lunch break Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK AND CLAIRE (2:27 p.m.)

Next witness is Elaine Vendrone, from Hillsborough County. She was out driving at the intersection of W Kennedy Boulevard and Westshore Boulevard in Tampa. That’s near Westshore Mall, she says, as McNeill questions her. This would have been shortly before Phoebe died.

Some time between 11:50 p.m. and midnight, she saw a white PT cruiser run the red light and almost cause an accident. When she heard what had later happened on the Dick Misener Bridge, she let authorities know what she had seen.

McNeill asks if the car was going fast.

Vendrone says yes, in her opinion, it was.

The jury now watches video footage of the PT Cruiser driving through the intersection, on a monitor that was rolled in front of their seats.

The prosecution has no questions for Vendrone. She is excused.

CLAIRE (2:04 p.m.)

Bolan is up on cross, talking to former Sgt. Hubble.

He’s seeking to downplay Jonchuck’s odd statements, it seems like.

“He didn’t say anything about hearing demons talking, didn’t tell you that he heard voices, did he?” the prosecutor says. “You never heard any of those statements.”

He’s continuing in that vein when Manuele asks to approach the bench. Another conference.

No further questions after that is over.

Former St. Petersburg police Sgt. Theresa "Terry" Hubble testifies Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE AND ZACK (2:00 p.m.)

Jonchuck is staring straight ahead as Hubble speaks.

The jurors are looking at Williams as he asks his questions. One is chewing gum.

“Did he ever tell you why he needed to go to Babylon?” Williams asks. “The Bible — did you ever hear it making any noises? Did you ever hear it knocking?”

Hubble says no. And no, he didn’t seem to be under the influence of anything.

ZACK AND CLAIRE (1:47 p.m.)

Defense attorney Greg Williams calls the next witness, former St. Pete PD Sgt. Theresa “Terry” Hubble, who retired after more than 28 years on the force.

The night Phoebe died Hubble was part of the detective division, over a unit that picked up people who had probable cause or needed to be interviewed.

Like most of the other officers, she heard the call go over the radio that night and sped south.

After Jonchuck was arrested, she says, she got into the cruiser with him. The main objective at that point, she says, was to figure out who or what he had thrown off the Dick Misener Bridge.

“He was yelling,” Hubble says, describing Jonchuck as “very agitated” as she approached the car. But she could not understand what he was saying because the windows were up.

Hubble says she introduced herself as Sgt. Terry Hubble and asked Jonchuck what his name was as she got into the cruisers.

“He proceeded to tell me that he was God and I needed to address him as such,” Hubble says. Then, she recalls, he addressed her by name and told her she needed to take him to the city of Babylon.

He listened to her questions, she remembers, and would yell answers back.

“Basically I was asking him his name and who he had thrown over the bridge,” she says. “He would not use his given name. ... He would tell me that he was God or the fallen angel, Michael.”

“How many times did he tell you that he was God?” Williams asks.

“Numerous times,” she says.

“How many times did he tell you that he was the fallen angel Michael?” Williams asks.

“Numerous times.”

Joinchuck was asking for his Bible, and Hubble radioed to other officers to ask whether they could see it.

“He was very adamant about his Bible and wanted to know if his Bible was okay,” she remembers.

Defense attorneys Jane McNeill, Jessica Manuele, and Greg Williams review what witnesses they can call for the murder trial of John Jonchuck, who sits to their right. SCOTT KEELER | Times
JOSH, CLAIRE AND ZACK (12:45 p.m.)

It sounds like the defense doesn’t have enough witnesses in the courthouse to fill the afternoon hours with testimony. They’re struggling to get cell phone numbers and to get people to show up on late notice.

“We’re going as fast as we can,” public defender Greg Williams says.

Helinger is not happy.

“I’m not going to stop the trial early because you haven’t gotten your witnesses here. You have to get somebody here to testify,” the judge says.

Helinger is incredulous that the defense seems surprised by the fact that they needed more witnesses here today.

“It’s not like an unexpected event,” Helinger says.

She starts lecturing the defense; Jessica Manuele stepped on her toes.

“Ms. Manuele, don’t interrupt me,” the judge says from the bench.

“We can’t call witnesses on break,” Manuele says, lamenting that the courtroom is mic’d and they can’t have meaningful conversations here. They don’t have time to go to their office downstairs and then get back during short breaks, she says.

Plus, the defense has hit hurdles: One witness is sick, another has scheduling issues.

Helinger says she doesn’t want to the jury to be “exasperated or angry” because they feel their time is being squandered.

“When you talk about having a fair trial, part of that is their perception that people are being considerate,” the judge says.

Manuele says their case makes more sense if witnesses come in order.

Helinger doesn’t change anything about how the day will proceed, but reiterates her disappointment.

The room is cleared for lunch. We’ll be back at 1:30 p.m.

Thanks for following along. While you’re reading, if you want to help fund this kind of journalism, subscribe to the Tampa Bay Times here.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (12:34 p.m.)

McNeill is slowly walking through officers stopping Jonchuck. Jurors have now heard this from different angles ... a half-dozen times?

Sousa estimates he saw at least a dozen police cars at the roadblock.

Jonchuck is looking down as Manuele takes notes.

Sousa recalls other officers having their guns drawn. He could hear: “Show me your hands!” and other commands, he says.

When he approached the car, he did not hear Jonchuck say anything. Sousa says he tried to open the door, but it was locked, so he took out his baton and broke the driver’s window and the rear left window.

Here we go again into descriptions of Jonchuck’s non-responsiveness. Sousa recalls grabbing Jonchuck’s arm and pulling him through the window, taking him to the ground.

“Is he actively resisting to you in any way?” McNeill says. The officer says he wasn’t.

Prosecutor Doug Ellis on cross, highlighting how Jonchuck accelerated while officers drove behind.

Now we break for lunch.

St. Petersburg Police Officer Andre Sousa testifies Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK (12:24 p.m.)

The defense calls St. Pete PD Officer Andre Sousa, who smashed out Jonchuck’s window the night he was arrested.

McNeill is asking him about his assignments, the jurors are back and taking notes.

Sousa got the call about a child being dropped off a bridge the about midnight the night of Jan. 7.

He ended up tailing Jonchuck’s PT Cruiser, keeping pace.

For a while, he was the only officer behind the car, but he knew he had backup coming.

Sousa recalls the PT Cruiser’s right blinker going on, then the vehicle slowing to about 10 miles per hour as it moved toward the emergency lane. Sousa says he called out on the radio that the vehicle seemed to be stopped. He turned on his lights and sirens.

But then the car switched its blinker to the left and made a U-turn, “almost around the front of my car,” Sousa says.

This is when Jonchuck begins driving the wrong way, as we know from testimony yesterday of Officer Gillis, who was approaching the scene and ended up head-to-head with Jonchuck.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (12:10 p.m.)

With the jury out of the room, the judge dispensed with a handful of motions from the defense to derail the proceeding. Really, they felt like formalities; it was extremely unlikely any would work.

The first dealt with aggravated child abuse as an underlying charge for murder. It was hard to follow, but it’s inconsequential as the judge denied it.

The second was to acquit Jonchuck of first-degree murder as the state didn’t prove premeditation. Denied.

The third was for a mistrial. The defense said the state, during its opening statement, made prejudicial statements for which they presented no evidence during their case in chief. Denied.

With those desperate measures out of the way, the judge orders the defense to call its first witness.

JOSH (11:56 a.m.)

The state’s case in chief took only two days, Monday afternoon to Wednesday morning. Frankly, they had an easy job: prove Jonchuck killed his daughter.

It was so easy because the chain of events, from death to apprehension, was never broken. Every step was witnessed by sworn law enforcement officers, who are usually strong and reliable witnesses.

The state started with Jonchuck on the bridge, within sight of a police officer, Officer William “Drew” Vickers. Vickers watched Jonchuck drop his daughter.

Officers watched him flee, make a U-turn, flee more. They watched him come to a stop. They held him at gunpoint, dragged him from a window. They watched him in jail, in patrol cars. They heard him admit he dropped his daughter.

It meant there was never any room for an alibi defense, never any doubt the police arrested the right guy, never any question about what happened.

Today, prosecutors called the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy. There is no murder without a victim, and Wednesday morning’s testimony delivered to jurors Phoebe’s body.

All that made for a clean, straightforward narrative for the jurors to follow. The state brought “the what” to the jurors. Now the defense — which is arguing Jonchuck was insane at the time — has the much harder job of trying to give the jurors “the why.”

After that, the state will get a chance to try to dismantle the assertion that Jonchuck was insane. They’ll present their own “whys.” But their initial job was simply to prove Jonchuck killed his daughter.

CLAIRE (11:41 a.m.)

Bolan’s back up. He wants the officer to reiterate the things Jonchuck said in the police car. It’s all about Jonchuck’s state of mind.

The officer recounts: “He stated that he did not throw his daughter into the water, but dropped her into the water. That was his first statement. Right after that he stated that, ‘You do not know what I’ve been going through.’ And the last thing was, he wanted to know what he did wrong.”

That’s all the state has.

Manuele pushes back. “Those three statements, those were all after he had said whatever about Michael at the scene... when he asked you to take him to Babylon, correct, and when he asked you to take him to the airport, correct, and when he told you the only way he will live is with him, correct?” Yes, the officer says.

It’ll be interesting to see how the jury parses those statements.

And the state rests.

It’s 11:41 a.m., and we’re taking a break.

CLAIRE (11:36 a.m.)

Manuele says, “Good morning” to Carter and begins cross-examination.

“The first time you have eyes on the car it has come to a stop?” Yes.

“Multiple officers have their guns drawn?” Carter says he guesses so.

“He drove up gripping the steering wheel and stayed gripping the steering wheel?” Manuele says. “Not responding to any commands? ... He’s basically dead weight?” Carter agrees.

The jury has heard this line of questioning several times before. Jonchuck staring blankly, etc. All to underline Jonchuck’s non-responsiveness.

Manuele establishes that Carter’s vehicle did not have a camera.

“While John is sitting in the back of that car, he starts asking for his Bible, correct?”

Carter says Jonchuck asked another officer, yes.

“And you transported that giant Bible to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, right?”

Manuele asks Carter if the Bible was making noise. “It wasn’t knocking, was it?” No, the officer says.

Apparently Jonchuck said something about “Michael,” but the officer didn’t make note of that in his report — only later in an interview. Manuele is frustrated that there isn’t more information about that comment, again critiquing the thoroughness of the investigation.

(It’s not clear to me who or what “Michael” is, just another one of Jonchuck’s odd statements.)

“He also asked you to take him to Babylon, correct?” Manuele says. “And you didn’t ’ put that in your report either, did you?

“No I did not.”

Manuele is quoting something Jonchuck apparently told the officer while in the car: “The only way he will live is with him.”

She continues: “So John doesn’t use the words ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘her’ at all?” That’s correct, the officer says. He admits he didn’t include that quote in his report, nor did he do a follow-up.

“You thought that his demeanor was off for somebody who had just lost a child, yes? He was just too calm, correct?” Manuele asks.

The officer says yes, he felt that way.

Police photographed defendant John Jonchuck after arresting him Jan. 8, 2015. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK (11:20 a.m.)

Jonchuck’s dad, John Jonchuck Sr., is sitting outside the courtroom in a suit. It appears as though he expects to testify today.

JOSH AND CLAIRE (11:15 a.m.)

Next, Bolan shows Carter some photographs on the projector. The first is Jonchuck’s white Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Then a series of more photos of the car. There’s the dark interior after the driver’s side window was smashed. The seat and floor are covered with pieces of glass. A picture of the inside from the passenger window. Jonchuck had a soda cup in his cup holder.

The backseat, with a bright pink child booster seat. A crate of water and what looks like a garbage bag and toys in the backseat. (We know from past reporting that Phoebe’s Christmas gifts are in there.) The license plate: DERP27.

Another picture shows Jonchuck at the St. Pete police station. He’s in pajama pants, an orange shirt and a gray hoodie zipper sweatshirt.

Carter explains that he drove Jonchuck to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, then to St. Pete police headquarters, then to the Pinellas County jail.

Carter was in the holding room when Jonchuck was lying on the table.

He remembers Jonchuck apparently trying to make himself cry.

“Did it appear to be genuine crying to you?” Bolan asks.

“No it did not, it appeared that he was forcing himself to create tears,” the officer says.

While Jonchuck was in the back of Carter’s patrol car, Jonchuck made three unprovoked statements.

He said he didn’t throw Phoebe off the bridge, but dropped her in the water.

“He said, ‘You do not know what I’ve been going through,’” the officer recalls.

And the officer tells jurors that Jonchuck said he did not know what he had done wrong.

Police photographed defendant John Jonchuck's PT Cruiser after his arrest. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Police photographed defendant John Jonchuck's PT Cruiser after his arrest. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Police photographed defendant John Jonchuck's PT Cruiser after his arrest. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK (11:09 a.m.)

St. Pete PD Officer Michael Carter is called up for the state.

He works downtown, on the squad that handles bars. He was working the night Phoebe died. He heard the radio transmission about a child being dropped off the Dick Misener Bridge.

He responded to the north fishing pier near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. He was trying to locate the white PT Cruiser.

Eventually, he was called out to Interstate 75, after other officers spotted the car. At one point, when he was driving to reach the scene, he was driving 137 mph, he says. When he pulled up, he says, the PT Cruiser was stopping.

Carter approached the driver’s side of the vehicle with three other officers.

Bolan asks about the vehicle’s license plate.

“Delta-Echo-Romeo-Papa-Two-Seven,” Carter says. He looks at the jurors as he speaks.

Another officer smashed the glass to reach Jonchuck, who was sitting with his hands on the steering wheel, Carter says.

After the window was broken, he says, Jonchuck still did not respond to commands. He was holding onto the steering wheel, with his seat belt buckled.

An officer on the other side of the vehicle reached in and unbuckled it.

Carter recalls how they pulled Jonchuck from the car, took him to the ground and handcuffed him, calling the situation “intense.”

Jonchuck was later taken to Carter’s cruiser while in cuffs.

St. Petersburg Police officer Michael Carter testifies Wednesday in the murder trial of John Jonchuck. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Police photographed defendant John Jonchuck's PT Cruiser after his arrest. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE (11 a.m.)

Manuele on cross, asking the detective about his attempt to get information from the phone in question.

Two questions in, another bench conference. One juror raises her eyebrows, like, “Here we go again.” A gray-haired juror in the top row just folded his arms.

Back to cross.

This line of questioning feels like we’re straying a bit from the core matter. I just don’t know how much stock jurors are going to put into this phone data extraction debate.

Witness Thaddius Coffin, a main forensic technician with the St. Petersburg Police Department, testifies in the murder trial of John Jonchuck. SCOTT KEELER | Times
JOSH AND CLAIRE (10:53 a.m.)

The next witness is Thaddius Coffin, a 14-year detective with St. Pete PD and the main forensic technician in the department.

He’s being questioned by prosecutor Paul Bolan.

His expertise is digital forensics and computer crimes, and he has training in extracting information from cell phones.

He examined Jonchuck’s phone after police collected it. The screen was cracked and it wouldn’t power on.

Coffin explins how he took the battery out of the phone and clipped it to a power source to try to get it to turn on. That didn’t work, so he had to open it up and extract the microchip.

“Typically don’t like to do this, because it is destructive to the phone,” he says. He calls it the last resort.

Even that didn’t work, and he was not able to get any data.

“So, by taking the chip out… does that in any way impair the data that was on the chip?” Bolan asks.

No, Coffin explains, even if the plastic components of the phone are damaged, the data is safe.

The point of this seems to be that investigators were forced to destroy the phone in order to try to get evidence from it.

We don’t believe the state would have called this witness except that the defense made a point on cross examination yesterday of highlighting the phone’s destruction and the lack of evidence pulled from it.

We wouldn’t make this out to be a critical trial moment — it’s just addressing a possible question jurors might have been left with after the defense’s mention yesterday.

CLAIRE, ZACK AND JOSH (10:42 a.m.)

The standing juror sits back down and coughs. As the ME explains asphyxiation, most jurors sit with notepads in their laps. No one is reacting visibly to those images, or the discussion of Phoebe’s body hitting the cold water and staying in it about an hour and a half.

Jonchuck, still with his hands around his cheeks, looks at the doctor.

“They surrounded her by warm blankets and infused warm IV fluids and got her temperature up to 24 degrees Celsius, which is 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit,” the doctor explains about the rescue efforts.

Jonchuck stares.

“What was the cause of death?” Ellis asks.

“Cause of death was drowning,” Wilson says.

“What was the manner of death?”


“What was the contributing condition?”


Ellis asks: Do those bruises have to happen when a person is alive?

Yes, the doctor says.

On cross-examination, McNeill asks, “None of those photographs show direct evidence of hypothermia?” Wilson agrees.

On re-direct, Ellis asks: Those photographs are consistent with someone being thrown off a bridge and making impact with the water? Yes.

As Wilson walks out of the courtroom, Jonchuck looks down.


Graphic photographs of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck’s body were shown this morning to jurors in her father’s murder trial. These photographs show the trauma inflicted on Phoebe when she was dropped off the Dick Misener Bridge and fell 62 feet to her death, They were visible in the courtroom and images were made by Tampa Bay Times photographer Scott Keeler. As a news organization, we rarely publish photographs that show deceased people and find no compelling reason to make an exception for this case. A team of editors thoroughly discussed whether to publish the photos and agreed that just because we can is not enough. These images are horrible to see and we feel to publish them would go beyond the scope of responsibility we feel in giving readers complete coverage of the Jonchuck trial.

JOSH, CLAIRE AND ZACK (10:29 a.m.)

Here come the photos. One juror in the top row is standing. He’s wearing a brown buttoned shirt, holding his notepad. He glanced at Jonchuck before looking back at the screen.

We’re looking at Phoebe’s bruised body from the back, all purple and red, her pale buttocks exposed.

Jonchuck stares ahead at the screen but does not move. He blinks. As the doctor explains the pattern of bruises, Jonchuck takes a breath and puts his chin in his hands again, fingers by the corners of his eyes.

One juror looks at him as the pictures change.

“Would this be consistent with being thrown off a bridge, perhaps hitting a pylon or something?” Ellis asks.

Wilson says perhaps. It must have been caused by something that Phoebe hit.

Next is a zoomed in picture of her bruising on her side, purple and red like waves. Another juror looks at Jonchuck, who’s looking at the photographs with his hands on either side of his face.

One white-haired juror takes her glasses off to look at the photo, then puts them back on to take notes. Hard to tell how they are taking these.

Next the back of Phoebe’s legs and feet. Jonchuck hasn’t moved from holding his chin in his hands.

The medical examiner walks through elements of Phoebe’s wounds, holding a pointer. A few jurors take notes. The juror at the top left, a man with glasses and a white button-down shirt, casts a long glance at Jonchuck, who is leaning over his hands.

Glasses come on and off. Jurors take notes, set their faces in a hard line, lean forward.

The screen changes to a photo of Phoebe’s shoulder. Jonchuck looks up, and from the gallery he looks like he’s about to cry. His lead counsel, Jessica Manuele, puts her hand on the back of his chair.

A photo of Phoebe’s mouth. Blue lips, the bottom baby teeth. Jonchuck looks at it then back down, hands on his forehead.

Why do the lips look like that? “The temperature of the deceased,” the doctor says. One juror leans her head back. Most don’t move. Just looking.

The pictures change. One shows Phoebe’s back, her dirty blonde hair flowing out of frame.

Jonchuck takes a coarse brown napkin and dabs at his eyes. He puts his chin in his palms and looks at Manuele. The photo display is over.

The room was spared a photo of Phoebe’s full face.

Defendant John Jonchuck, right, reacts as photographs of Phoebe's body are shown to the jury. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE (10:19 a.m.)

Helinger wants to get things going again. Defense still objects to all photos, but Helinger waves things forward.

I will say it’s interesting that this is just being worked out right now, while the medical examiner is sitting on the stand. These photos are four years old, and there have been many many hearings and motions in this case.

Defendant John Jonchuck watches as lawyers look at photographs of Phoebe in court. SCOTT KEELER | Times
CLAIRE AND JOSH (10:17 a.m.)

The judge said she will allow some of the photos to be shown — but she wants to severely limit how many.

The fact that those bruises are there is relevant to the drowning, she says, because they are the injuries Phoebe sustained while being thrown into the water. And, Helinger notes, Phoebe had no injuries before she fell.

She’ll allow “one photo of each wound that she would have sustained,” she says. “I am somewhat — One face shot and that’s it,” she says, sighing. She rests her chin on her fists.

Now the attorneys have to narrow down the pictures.

“Show them to the defense,” Helinger says.

“Well, they’re already objecting to everything,” Ellis says.

‘We’re already past that,” she says. “You get one picture.”

The attorneys work it out.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger has a bench conference with the attorneys over what photographs of deceased Phoebe Jonchuck can be shown to the jury in court. SCOTT KEELER | Times

In The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck, our colleague Lane DeGregory wrote about the condition of Phoebe’s body when the autopsy was conducted.

“An autopsy found frothy fluid in her lungs,” Lane wrote. “Bruises the size of cantaloupes on her back. Bruises on her jaw and lip. Scrapes near her ear and ankle. A thin layer of blood on her brain.”

The defense seems desperate to keep that sort of testimony from making it to the jurors.

Now that each side has established what the photos do and don’t show, they make their arguments.

McNeill says photographs should be admissible if they show a material fact in issue. If they don’t, they’re irrelevant, she says.

“(Phoebe) was not killed by a bruise, we know that, she was killed due to drowning," she says. "If someone had been hit with blunt force trauma and there was bruising, clearly that would be relevant.”

Ellis says photographs should be admissible if they assist the medical examiner and will show location of wounds, not just lethal wounds. If somebody got stabbed 10 times, you’d show all 10 stab wounds, he says, not just the single lethal one.

Bruising is consistent with the fall, Ellis says.

“That led to the drowning,” he says. “It’s a process.”

He’s citing previous cases. This may seem procedural, but it’s pivotal.

Will the jury see images of Phoebe’s dead body? How will that sway them? We don’t know what each of them do for work, but these are people who before last week may never have encountered the evidence of a murder case so intimately.

Attorneys show Dr. Christopher Wilson, an associate medical examiner for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office, photos of Phoebe Jonchuck's body. SCOTT KEELER | Times
ZACK, CLAIRE AND JOSH (10:05 a.m.)

Lawyers are showing Wilson the autopsy photos one by one. McNeill is asking questions about each.

“Does that show drowning?”

“Does that show where the body was found?”

“Does it show the condition of the crime scene?”

Wilson answers no each time.

Then Ellis:

Would it assist you in explaining the nature or manner death was inflicted? Yes, Wilson says, each time.

Helinger will then decide if, and how, each of these photos of Phoebe’s dead body can be used before the jury.

Jonchuck listens, watching McNeill as she displays the photos to Dr. Wilson one by one.

Public defenders are trying to fight use of these pictures, while prosecutors are trying to show they are necessary for the doctor to speak about Phoebe’s death.

JOSH (10:01 a.m.)

It appears they will proffer the Dr. Wilson’s testimony. That means they’ll ask him questions and listen to it, and the judge will decide if it’s suitable for the jury to hear. If so, they’ll do it all over again for the jury.

ZACK (9:58 a.m.)

And everything comes to a halt. Helinger just dismissed the jury for now.

“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to take a recess and deal with a legal issue. I’m going to hope it would not take any longer than half an hour.”

CLAIRE (9:53 a.m.)

This will likely be a difficult moment for jurors, who will see photographs of Phoebe’s body for the first time. The wall TV has lit up with a blank white screen. Lawyers are talking at the bench. Jurors are swiveling, waiting.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (9:45 a.m.)

A resounding “good morning” from fresh-faced jurors as Judge Helinger welcomes them in and apologizes for the “waste of time” that she said couldn’t have been avoided. And we’re off.

First Helinger reads the jury the stipulation that Jonchuck just agreed to. Both the state and the defense agree that Phoebe Jonchuck was the victim in this case, she says.

The state’s first witness of the morning is Dr. Christopher Wilson, an associate medical examiner for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, where he’s been for 16 years.

Wilson is staring at the jury as he speaks, quickly running them through the process of an autopsy. Looking at eyes, taking the scalpel, opening the skin, removing organs and weighing them. Some jurors takes note but all watch him as he speaks. It’s early, and they’re alert.

“Phoebe was 47 inches in height,” he says, referencing documents in front of him on the stand. “64 pounds.”

She had evidence of EKG pads on her chest, from the rescuers attempt to revive her.

Jonchuck is sitting and staring straight ahead. Ellis is about to show some of Phoebe’s autopsy photos on the projector in court, but first a bench conference.

ZACK AND CLAIRE (9:43 a.m.)

Before the jury comes in, Helinger needs to get Jonchuck’s approval on something.

The lawyers have stipulated that the medical examiner can come testify that the dead person in this case is Phoebe Jonchuck. Were it not for that stipulation, Helinger says, someone would need to formally identify the victim as Phoebe.

Helinger asks Jonchuck if that’s okay. He looks back at her.

“Do you understand what I said?” she asks.


“Do you agree?”

Jonchuck turns to Manuele, and they talk for about a minute.

“I agree, your honor.” He speaks softly, almost mumbling.

JOSH AND ZACK (9:39 a.m.)

Helinger says she is denying the state’s motion to allow their experts to sit in on testimony, except that of the other expert witnesses and of Jonchuck if he chooses to testify (which is standard practice), and of lawyer Genevieve Torres. She is the person who saw Jonchuck and called authorities because of his bizarre behavior hours before Phoebe’s death.

While explaining her reasoning, the judge said that if after watching testimony throughout the whole trial, an expert changed their opinion, the defense would probably be entitled to depose that expert again. And that would delay the trial.

The reason the judge is allowing the experts to listen to Torres is that the state says it was unable to depose the lawyer, and therefore their experts were not able consider the her statements.

ZACK (9:09 a.m.)

Not much new to report in Jonchuck’s jail log this morning. All seems to be standard. He showered last night, has received meals and medication.

Before the jury comes in, lawyers will hash out their dispute from yesterday about whether the state’s expert witnesses can watch this section of testimony. It’s a procedural discussion.

CLAIRE AND ZACK (9:07 a.m.)

“Are we ready for Mr. Jonchuck?” Judge Chris Helinger asks.

Jonchuck enters on the eighth day of his trial wearing a slightly wrinkled white shirt and a silver tie. He sits next to public defender Jane McNeill and pulls in his seat.

Defendant John Jonchuck takes his seat in the courtroom Wednesday. SCOTT KEELER | Times


Imagine testifying about your son, who is on trial for murder in the death of your granddaughter.

That’s what Michele Jonchuck endured yesterday, fielding questions on the witness stand about whether Phoebe Jonchuck could swim and was afraid of water. It was the first time she’d seen her son in three years.

John Jonchuck covered his face. Michele Jonchuck wiped tears from her eyes.

Her testimony was flanked by a parade of law enforcement officers, most from St. Petersburg police and one from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. All played a role in either apprehending, watching or investigating Jonchuck.

The mother testified on behalf of the prosecution, who is still in the phase of proving the murder. They will continue to call witnesses today.


John Jonchuck’s mother testifies as her son stands trial for her granddaughter’s murder

Day 7 Live Blog: Prosecutor establish their case

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