Police: Girl, 5, dead after father drops her from Sunshine Skyway approach

The sun rises Friday morning over a small memorial near the spot where police said Phoebe Jonchuck (inset), 5, was dropped from Dick Misener Bridge by her father.
The sun rises Friday morning over a small memorial near the spot where police said Phoebe Jonchuck (inset), 5, was dropped from Dick Misener Bridge by her father.
Published Feb. 10, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — John Jonchuck Jr. cradled his 5-year-old daughter, pressing her face to his chest, and walked to the edge of the bridge.

He leaned over the railing, Tampa Bay looming 62 feet below early on a cold and windy Thursday morning.

A police officer, gun drawn, yelled at him to stop.

But Jonchuck let go, authorities said.

The officer heard a scream and then a splash, the girl's body quickly disappearing into the dark moonlit waters.

Jonchuck drove away, south on Interstate 275 and later into Manatee County.

A search team soon found Phoebe Jonchuck's lifeless body. Jonchuck, 25, was arrested and faces a charge of first-degree murder, among others. He offered no motive, authorities said.

Jonchuck had a record of domestic abuse complaints and showed signs recently of coming unraveled. Still, the case prompted an immediate change in policy by the state's child-welfare agency and stunned even seen-it-all law officers.

"I've been doing this job for 29 years," St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said, "and I don't even know what was going through this guy's mind."

• • •

On Wednesday morning Jonchuck visited a lawyer's office in Tampa wearing his pajamas. Phoebe was with him, sporting tiny shorts and a blue jacket. She did not speak.

Lawyer Genevieve Torres of the Family First Law Group in Lutz did not know much about her new client. Police and court records show he had a history of arrests on charges of domestic battery, driving under the influence, passing fraudulent checks with his child's mother, whom he had dated for several years. On most police records, his job was listed as "unemployed."

Jonchuck told Torres he had taken care of Phoebe for two years. Torres was supposed to file paperwork that day for Jonchuck so that, after years of domestic strife, he could gain full legal custody of his daughter.

Jonchuck asked Torres to read a Bible in Swedish. He told her she was God, the Creator. He asked Torres to accompany him to a church so he could be baptized. She refused, and he told her to stop the case.

"Don't file the paperwork," he told her. "It's not going to matter anymore."

"He's out of his mind, and he has a minor child with him driving to the church now," Torres told a 911 operator afterward.

Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies found Jonchuck and Phoebe at St. Paul's Catholic Church on N Dale Mabry Highway, where he was meeting with a priest to join the flock.

Jonchuck told them God had spoken to him in the past, according to a Sheriff's Office report. He said that "he did not feel like hurting himself or anyone else."

Deputies determined he was healthy, not a threat, and that Phoebe appeared happy.

"I just regret not keeping her in the office and letting him go," Torres had told the dispatcher.

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About 13 hours later, Jonchuck was on the bridge.

• • •

St. Petersburg police Officer William Vickers was returning home from a patrol shift about 12:09 a.m. Thursday, driving south on I-275. A white Chrysler PT Cruiser sped past him, near the exit for the Pinellas Bayway, going at least 100 mph.

The 36-year-old officer followed in his marked patrol car.

Near the exit for Maximo Park, the Chrysler braked hard, then accelerated. When Vickers caught up on the Dick Misener Bridge, on the northern approach to the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the car was already stopped.

Jonchuck got out, according to police. Vickers told him to stop and stay in the vehicle. Jonchuck said something the officer could not hear, then walked to the rear passenger door, leaned in, and lifted Phoebe from her seat. Then he walked to the edge.

While Vickers tried to spot the girl in the water, authorities said, Jonchuck got in his car and drove over the Skyway. St. Petersburg officers spotted him about five minutes later. The officers followed Jonchuck until he made a U-turn and drove directly at them. Manatee sheriff's deputies eventually used stop sticks to disable his car on Interstate 75. He refused to open the door or come out, so they broke a back window.

• • •

Jonchuck declined to speak to investigators Thursday. Family and friends struggled to fill in gaps.

Phoebe, they said, had wavy blond hair and a toothy smile. She liked to draw pictures of cats and hearts.

"I let her draw a cat tattoo on my leg," her mother, Michelle Kerr, 29, recalled Thursday.

Sometimes Jonchuck yelled at Phoebe and locked her in her room, said former roommate, Melody Dishman, 25.

"She didn't want to be around John," Dishman said. "I could see it in her eyes."

But he never hit her, Dishman said. "I would never think that he would have hurt her."

On Tuesday, Dishman said, she received alarming text messages from Jonchuck in which he called her names and claimed to have found Jesus.

Jonchuck had been staying with his father, John Jonchuck Sr., 57. His father said Jonchuck and Phoebe had been in Tampa at the house Wednesday night and must have left for the Skyway after he had gone to bed.

A medical examiner conducted an autopsy on Phoebe's body but did not release results, citing the ongoing investigation.

When he was approached by Hillsborough deputies earlier Wednesday, Jonchuck said he had previously taken 37 different medications but was not on any then, according to their report.

Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger, known as an advocate for mentally ill defendants, said aspects of this case troubled him — especially, he said, that Jonchuck's lawyer called 911 and the Department of Children and Families, but could not get action.

DCF confirmed that someone called its abuse hotline at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday to warn about Jonchuck. The caller said Jonchuck was driving all over town in his pajamas Wednesday, and seemed "depressed and delusional." However, the caller did not report any specific threats.

DCF did not consider the report enough to prompt an investigation. The Hillsborough sheriff's Child Protective Investigation Division has investigated the Jonchuck family before, according to records held by DCF.

"It bothers me that an attorney calls in on a client, that they are so concerned about the safety of this child, and that the (sheriff) says there's nothing they can do … and DCF says there's nothing they can get involved with," Dillinger said.

"And then hours later, this child is dead. Something is wrong."

Late Thursday, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said the department will change its hotline protocol to require a visit from an investigator when a child is believed to be in the care of someone having a psychotic episode. "We have to do more for the children, like Phoebe, who depend on us to protect them," Carroll said.

• • •

In court, Jonchuck spoke in a monotone and often turned his eyes to the ground.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews ordered Jonchuck held without bail and said he should be brought back to court on Monday. He also must be given a mental evaluation.

When Andrews asked him if his name was John Jonchuck, he shrugged. "That's the name I was given."

When Andrews asked if he wanted an attorney, Jonchuck said, "No. I want to leave it in the hands of God."

When Andrews asked again, Jonchuck repeated himself.

"I'm pretty sure God is not going to be representing you in this case," the judge said.

Times staff writers Dan Sullivan and Laura Morel and news researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report.