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Judge finds John Jonchuck competent to stand trial in death of 5-year-old daughter Phoebe

Published Mar. 4, 2017

After two years of receiving psychiatric treatment at a state hospital, the man charged with dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off the Dick Misener bridge in 2015 is ready to stand trial.

During a brief hearing Friday morning, Pinellas Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone ruled that John Jonchuck was competent after reading evaluation reports by doctors.

"I don't know how to put it into words," said Michelle Kerr, Phoebe's mother, after hearing the news. "I've been waiting for this day for a long time."

Jonchuck, 27, is charged with first-degree murder. Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said prosecutors want the trial to take place "as soon as possible," likely in the fall.

"The concern for us is that he would become incompetent again," he said.

The Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, which is representing Jonchuck, declined to comment.

Jonchuck will remain at the state hospital in Gainesville until the case is closer to trial. The last time Jonchuck was brought to the Pinellas County jail for a hearing in April, he refused a psychiatrist's visit, would not take all of his medications and tried to grab a guard, according to Sheriff's Office records.

"The jail doesn't force them to take the medication," Bartlett said. "If they don't take it, then they slide back into that gray area."

Reached by phone Friday morning, surprise gripped Jonchuck's mother, Michele Jonchuck, when a reporter told her about the judge's decision.

"Oh my God," she said. "I hate what he did, but I still love him because he's my son. He took away something very dear to me, because Phoebe meant the world to me."

On Jan. 8, 2015, an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer saw a white PT Cruiser speeding south 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. Within an hour, a rescue boat found her body.

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.

Jonchuck was found incompetent in February 2015.

The state is seeking the death penalty, but Bartlett said that decision will ultimately be up to State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

"It depends if we re-evaluate the circumstances of all the mental issues that are presented in the case," he added.

Michele Jonchuck said she hopes they reconsider given her son's extensive mental health history. Before his arrest, Jonchuck had been committed involuntarily 27 times and struggled with drug addiction. Loved ones have said he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

"I think that would be too easy on him," Michele Jonchuck said of the death penalty. "My whole family and I have to deal with this every day, and I believe he should have to deal with it. But at the same time, I believe he needs help."

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

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