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Evaluation finds John Jonchuck competent to stand trial in the death of his 5-year-old daughter

John Jonchuck is accused of throwing his daughter, Phoebe, off the Dick Misener Bridge in 2015. [Times files]
Published Jan. 11, 2017

Doctors treating John Jonchuck, charged with dropping his 5-year-old daughter off the Dick Misener bridge two years ago, have determined he is ready to stand trial.

Pinellas Circuit Judge Chris Helinger informed prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case Wednesday morning that she had read the state mental hospital's evaluation.

"We will need to have our own doctors assess Mr. Jonchuck," said his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Jane McNeill.

During the hearing, details also emerged of a wrongful death settlement paid by the Department of Children and Families to the girl's mother.

In February 2015, Jonchuck was found incompetent, which means he's not capable of understanding the charges against him. He was sent to a state hospital, where doctors have been treating him.

Helinger will ultimately decide if Jonchuck, 27, will go to trial. He is expected to be at his competency hearing scheduled for March 27.

If he is found competent, he will face a charge of first-degree murder. Prosecutors have filed a notice to seek the death penalty.

SPECIAL REPORT: THE LONG FALL OF PHOEBE JONCHUCK

The tragic saga unfolded Jan. 8, 2015, when an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer saw a white PT Cruiser speeding toward the Misener bridge just after midnight. The car pulled over and Jonchuck reached into the back seat for his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe.

He carried her to the edge of the bridge, police said, and dropped her into the water.

Jonchuck's mother told police her son had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but had not been taking his medicine. During his interview with detectives, he said: "My name is God and you shall address me as such."

Police later learned that hours before Jonchuck took his daughter to the bridge, he went to a Tampa lawyer's office in pajamas with Phoebe. He called himself the Pope and demanded a DNA test. Jonchuck also asked the lawyer to read a Bible in Swedish. She called 911.

Hillsborough deputies later found Jonchuck at a church, but concluded he didn't exhibit any signs of mental illness.

During the hearing Wednesday, Jonchuck's defense attorneys told the judge they were awaiting several records, including court documents from a settlement totaling about $100,000 that the Department of Children and Families paid to Phoebe's mother, Michelle Kerr.

According to Hillsborough court records, a judge approved an order in June allowing DCF to pay Kerr $107,000.

Weeks after the girl's death, DCF officials acknowledged they missed opportunities to help Phoebe, including failing to follow up on calls about her well-being to the state's abuse hotline.

Kerr declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday. A reporter later sent her a Facebook message, asking how she felt about Jonchuck possibly going to trial.

Kerr's response:

"A sense of ability to breathe."

Times staff writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

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