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Parents' rocky relationship preceded girl's death near Skyway

St. Petersburg police officers prepare to take John Jonchuck Jr., 25, from police headquarters downtown to the Pinellas County Jail on Thursday morning.
Published Jan. 9, 2015

RUSKIN — Michelle Kerr sat in the shade of her front porch Thursday afternoon, trembling, with tears streaking her cheeks. On a table beside her, two frames held a collage of pictures of her daughter Phoebe, a rosy-cheeked girl with long dirty-blonde locks, who shared her mother's broad smile.

Kerr spoke of the girl and her own tumultuous relationship with Phoebe's father, John Jonchuck Jr. For Phoebe, she used words like bright, artistic, angel. For him, she used words like liar, manipulative, hurtful.

Kerr spoke of the times he hit her, the times the cops came, and how he stopped her from seeing their daughter. She talked about how he sometimes seemed unstable, but never unstable enough to stop caring for a child. Such was the portrait that emerged of the man authorities say threw 5-year-old Phoebe off a bridge on Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg early Thursday morning.

Speaking through sobs, and puffing on a cigarette, Kerr wished aloud that she could take her daughter's place.

"Why couldn't he have done it to me?" Kerr said. "All I could think of was he loved her so much. Why? Why?"

Kerr's account echoes through court and police records, which document the couple's rocky six-year relationship. In the time they were together, authorities dealt with both Jonchuck and Kerr multiple times. In several cases, he was accused of being the aggressor. But court records also show that authorities questioned her fitness as a parent. Through it all, Phoebe was caught in the middle.

The couple met in 2008. Kerr was friends with a woman who worked at a call center with Jonchuck. She knew him as a gay man, who soon became her "gay friend," she said. But not long after they met, he told her he liked women, too. Soon, they were a couple. A year later, Phoebe was born.

They raised her together for the first years of her life. They never married. As time passed, troubles emerged.

In May 2010, he was accused of grabbing her and throwing her to the ground during an argument. The charges were dropped after Jonchuck went through a domestic violence diversion program, records show.

Two years ago, Tampa police went to the couple's Waters Avenue apartment for a domestic battery call. They found Kerr with a cut on her nose and a bruised cheek. She told officers that during an argument about ending their relationship, Jonchuck hit her, pushed her to the ground, and dragged her around the apartment by her hair.

Jonchuck was again arrested on a battery charge. The next day, Kerr sought an injunction for protection against him. It was granted, but later dismissed at her request. That was Jonchuck's doing, Kerr said Thursday. He persuaded her not to pursue it, she said. Prosecutors later dropped the battery charge.

In the time that she spent with him, Kerr knew Jonchuck to be unpredictable. Sometimes he would say things that didn't make sense, she said. She said he took psychiatric medications, Seroquel and Zoloft, among others.

"He was very, very bipolar," she said. "He was Jekyll and Hyde all the way."

In May 2013, Jonchuck was arrested again, accused of grabbing Kerr and throwing her to the ground after he found her exchanging text messages with another man. Days after he was released from jail, he was granted an injunction of his own. That charge, too, was later dropped.

"Michelle Kerr violently attacked me with a box cutter after being confronted about a secret Facebook in which she had (been) having an affair," he wrote in court papers. "(That) evening she brutally kept striking me in the face."

In court papers, Jonchuck accused Kerr of failing to adequately care for Phoebe. He wrote that she had mental health problems and abused drugs and alcohol. Florida Department of Children and Families investigators found similar problems. Records also show several of her own run-ins with the law, including theft and child neglect charges.

A judge granted Jonchuck's request that barred Kerr from direct contact with their daughter.

The move crushed Kerr. Weeks after the injunction, she emailed Jonchuck, asking to see the girl. Later, she showed up at a Tampa day care center and asked the staff to see her daughter. After both incidents, Jonchuck accused Kerr of violating the injunction. Amended injunctions followed, prolonging the time in which Kerr was barred from seeing Phoebe.

In that time, Kerr never knew where her daughter was. But she knew Jonchuck was taking care of her. She knew he was taking her to school and doctors appointments. Despite the couple's fights, he seemed capable as a father, she said.

"I never feared for her safety," Kerr said. "I knew from the times that I wasn't allowed to see her that she was in the arms of somebody safe. … He's not mentally stable, but he was stable enough to take care of a child for five years."

A few times, Jonchuck let her speak with the girl on the phone.

"Mom," Phoebe asked after one long period of separation, "do you still love me?"

"I love you more than anything," Kerr said.

Jonchuck let Kerr see Phoebe for the holidays. Kerr, who now lives in Ruskin, last saw her daughter at a Denny's restaurant on Christmas Day.

Nothing seemed amiss, Kerr said. But days later, Jonchuck sent her a series of text messages. He wanted to let her know he was seeking legal help in obtaining permanent custody of their daughter. Exactly what happened in the days that followed is uncertain. But what's not in question is the immense hurt left in the wake of Phoebe's death.

Early Thursday morning, Kerr awoke to a knock at her door. Three law enforcement officers stood waiting. They told her what had happened. She collapsed in their arms, wailing.

Times staff writer Philip Morgan contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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