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John Jonchuck's mother testifies as her son stands trial for her granddaughter's murder

A photograph of 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck is shown to the jury as grandmother Michele Jonchuck, sitting on the witness stand, looks toward her son, John Jonchuck. He is the father of Phoebe, and his murder trial in her 2015 death continued Tuesday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Mar. 26

LARGO — Michele Jonchuck wore bright pink to court Tuesday, for her granddaughter.

A yellow butterfly necklace dangled from her neck. Phoebe loved butterflies.

Next to it was a small pendant with a handprint etched into the metal. That, Michele said later, was Phoebe's hand. A digital scan was made after her body was pulled from Tampa Bay.

More than four years after John Jonchuck — Phoebe's father, Michele's son — dropped his daughter 62 feet from the Dick Misener Bridge, his mother took the witness stand in his murder trial.

Phoebe had called her MawMaw.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: The trial of John Jonchuck: Daily live blog and everything you need to know about the case

LIVE BLOG: The Trial of John Jonchuck, Day 7: Prosecutors establish their case

THE TRIAL: John Jonchuck trial begins with competing narratives over vengeance and insanity

THE CASE: The trial of John Jonchuck comes down to one question: Evil or insane?

THE VICTIM: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

The little girl was her chance at a course-correction, a purpose for good after a criminal past and years of drug abuse. The defense has contended John Jonchuck's own upbringing was difficult, marred by unknown mental illness and a family that all but abandoned him. The prosecution has said he killed Phoebe in part to spite his mother, who loved the 5-year-old girl in a way she had never cared for him.

Now Michele sat on the witness stand, in the middle.

Tuesday was the first time she had seen her son in about three years, when, she said, she visited John at a mental health treatment facility in Gainesville. He sat hunched to the side of the courtroom, next to his public defenders, in a loose blue dress shirt and striped tie. He's lost a lot of weight.

As his mother took the stand, John looked straight ahead, mouth open and brow furrowed.

"Do you know the defendant in this case?" prosecutor Doug Ellis asked.

"Yes," Michele replied. "He is my son."

And the victim?

"She was my granddaughter, my princess angel."

John dropped his forehead into his right hand. Michele wiped her eyes and looked to Judge Chris Helinger.

"Can I get a tissue?" she asked.

Her son covered his eyes.

For years she had agonized over how he could kill Phoebe. Finally on the stand, her testimony took only minutes. The lawyers asked mostly about whether her granddaughter knew how to swim.

Michele, 56, sipped water from a paper cup.

"She liked to go swimming and everything," Michele explained in a gravelly voice. "But she wanted you to hold her and she wouldn't go without floaties or anything."

John, 29, sat with his chin in his palms, fingers curled by his ears. He looked boyish and clean shaven.

"The last six months of her life, were you her primary caregiver? Had she learned to swim at any point during that time?" the prosecutor asked Michele.

"No," the grandmother said. "She liked somebody to hold onto her."

Her son did not react.

"Was the defendant the father of Phoebe?"

"Yes," Michele said.

The defense had only one question.

"Phoebe was living with you the last six months of her life?"

"Yes."

"Nothing further."

Michele's testimony was sandwiched between law enforcement officers who helped arrest or investigate her son that 2015 night. They talked about him pulling a U-turn on Interstate 75, driving head-to-head at one officer and blankly gripping the steering wheel of his halted car. They rattled off phone call logs while lawyers debated whether the police had gathered enough evidence to paint a full picture of Jonchuck's mental state that night.

Jurors also watched a video of Jonchuck in the hours after his arrest, a contrast to the thin, reserved man staring at the courtroom table. In the video, Jonchuck, handcuffed to his chair while waiting for St. Petersburg detectives to pick him up, laid on an interview table and alternated between conversational and combative. At times he seemed composed, articulate. In other moments he spoke of becoming the Pope and made vague allusions to conspiracies and being manipulated by something.

A former Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy who had evaluated Jonchuck's mental state at a church shortly before Phoebe's death, flew in from Oregon, where he's now an officer. Jonchuck said he wasn't hearing things, Deputy Aaron Rizzo recalled. He didn't want to hurt himself or others. The deputy said he had no reason to take Jonchuck into custody.

So the last time Rizzo saw Phoebe, it was as she and her father walked out the church doors hand in hand.

"She appeared happy and waving," he said.

Michele heard none of this. She left the courtroom after her testimony, pausing for a hallway interview with the Tampa Bay Times. She said she had been thinking, even while she sat on the stand, about the questions that rolled through her mind after learning her granddaughter died.

"How could he have done that to Phoebe?" she wondered. "And what made him do that?"

The trial has made the anguish raw again.

When Michele looked at her son in court, she said, she saw sadness in his eyes.

But she often turned to the jury box, where 16 people sat taking notes.

"I was just so nervous," she said.

The jurors will decide whether John is guilty, or if he was legally insane when he let Phoebe go.

Michele can't say whether her son should be convicted.

"I don't know," she said. "I'm not a doctor. Only God knows that."

As she walked out of the courtroom, she said, she looked over at John and told him she loved him.

She said she saw his lips move, mouthing the words "I love you" back to her.

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at (727) 893-8804 or zsampson@tampabay.com. Follow @zacksampson. Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or cmcneill@tampabay.com. Follow @clairemcneill. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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