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At funeral for 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, pastor, grandmother urge forgiveness

The casket of Phoebe Jonchuck is put in a hearse after memorial services at Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church in Tampa on Wednesday. Police say Phoebe, 5, died last week when her father, John Jonchuck Jr., dropped her from a bridge.
Published Jan. 15, 2015

TAMPA — Colors bloomed Wednesday morning inside the sanctuary at Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church: yellow and purple roses, pink balloons, orange and blue stained glass, white casket.

Michelle Kerr exchanged hugs and hushed greetings with mourners as she moved unsteadily to the base of an altar. There, in the open casket, nestled the cherubic face of her 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe.

Kerr, her limbs shaking from multiple sclerosis, her cheeks wet with tears, put a hand on the rail. She leaned on her boyfriend and an older daughter, who handed her a wad of tissues as she gazed in silence. The girl looked at peace. She might have been sleeping. But she wasn't.

Phoebe Jonchuck died Thursday when she was tossed from the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg. At her memorial service Wednesday in Tampa, those who knew her spoke of a girl with an infectious smile who learned to love going to school and told friends she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up.

There was scant mention of John Jonchuck, 25, her father, who remains jailed, accused of dropping the little girl to her death. And although the more than 150 mourners gave thanks for the five precious years Phoebe was alive, her tragic end was something difficult for even practiced spiritual leaders.

"When we try to wrestle with the whys, we say things like 'maybe it was God's will,' " said Pastor Brent Byerman, who led the service. "At this time I can't believe quite that. Many things happened to this girl that were not the will of God."

The congregants bowed their heads in prayer. They sang hymns and religious songs. They embraced Phoebe's family members and one another.

"I know you don't want me or anyone else to cry," said Phoebe's grandmother, Michele Jonchuck, addressing the girl's spirit. "But we can't help it right now. We know that God needs another angel. . . . This isn't a goodbye to you, my angel princess. Because one day again, I will be by your side."

A slideshow of photos was projected on two overhead screens. It showed Phoebe with a group of classmates sitting next to Santa Claus. It showed Phoebe, lying beside a furry dog, making a peace sign with her fingers. It showed Phoebe beaming with her arms open as though awaiting an embrace.

Micha Olivier, her kindergarten teacher, shared stories of the girl she had come to know this year at Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa.

"Phoebe loved school, and she loved her friends," Olivier said. "Who, by the way, are doing amazingly."

They speak of her as an angel with a set of fluffy wings, Olivier said. "Guess what?" they told their teacher. "She's in cloud school."

Twice in the 45-minute service, a chorus of sobs was punctuated by an angry shout. The second time, when a man blurted out that he wanted to kill Phoebe's father, a group of people escorted the man from the sanctuary.

"There needs to be a lot of forgiveness here today," Byerman said. "Not only forgiveness for the person who took Phoebe's life, but also for ourselves and everyone who may have let this girl down."

At the end, four pallbearers carried her casket to a waiting hearse. A caravan led by three Hillsborough County sheriff's cruisers, their sirens blaring, rolled a mile away to Lake Carroll Cemetery.

The bright colors dulled under the steel gray skies. Mourners emptied their cars and moved to a gravesite. One woman stayed behind, weeping in a driver's seat. Byerman read a brief prayer.

Afterward, some of her family members returned to the church for a news conference. They thanked the community for the support they have received. They asked that anyone who wants to help to send a donation to Phoebe's school.

Asked about her son, the man accused of Phoebe's death, Michele Jonchuck reiterated Byerman's words of forgiveness.

"I'm not happy with him. Who would be?" she said. "I don't know what happened. I really don't. But I have to forgive him."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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