ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Just 12 hours before police said John Jonchuck threw his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge — perhaps while she was still alive — the father calmly told a sheriff’s deputy he didn’t want to hurt himself or his little girl and had “new clarity in his life.”
The officer had made a point of interviewing Jonchuck in person because Jonchuck’s own attorney frantically called 911 to report that he was acting “strange.” The attorney, Genevieve Torres, said Jonchuck had called her “God” and asked her to translate a Bible in Swedish when they met Wednesday to talk about Jonchuck’s custody case for his daughter, Phoebe.
Yet, when police talked to Jonchuck at length, everything appeared OK.
Then police encountered Jonchuck again shortly after midnight Wednesday. He was going about 100 mph toward the Sunshine Skyway bridge. By the time an officer caught up with him, Jonchuck had pulled over on the approach span to the bridge.
Jonchuck got out, and started toward the officer, who pulled his weapon. Jonchuck grabbed Phoebe from the back seat and “held her face to his chest” as he carried her to the railing, St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway said.
It wasn’t clear whether Phoebe was alive when Jonchuck threw her into Tampa Bay about 60 feet below, though the officer said he “thought he heard the child scream,” Holloway said.
Phoebe’s body was recovered about a mile from the bridge about two hours later. An autopsy and cause of death is pending.
The Florida Department of Children and Families said late Thursday that the agency received a call to the abuse hotline at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday “regarding the mental health of Phoebe’s father.”
The anonymous caller said Jonchuck was “depressed and delusional.”
Later Thursday, department Secretary Mike Carroll issued a statement announcing that the department would change its abuse-response criteria following the child’s death.
“After the tragic loss of Phoebe, the department is immediately changing our Hotline criteria to include a trigger for when a caregiver is believed to be experiencing a psychotic episode” that would require a child protective investigator to visit within four hours and notify law enforcement, Carroll said.
“We have to do more for the children, like Phoebe, who depend on us to protect them.”
Earlier Thursday, Carroll had said a team is reviewing the agency’s involvement with the family, which included at least three prior investigations.
Before her death, Jonchuck and Phoebe had an odd encounter with his attorney. Torres told the 911 dispatcher that she had asked Jonchuck if he wanted her to file paperwork in his custody case.
“It’s not going to matter anymore,” she recalled him saying.
“That really scared me,” Torres told the dispatcher, her voice trembling. He was “out of his mind.”
Police found him a short time later at a church, and everything seemed fine. He told officers he was once on 37 different medicines for a variety of ailments, but none this week. He said he had recently lost weight and was eating healthy, “trying to better his life.”
The church’s priest told a deputy that Jonchuck had made the statement “I am the Pope,” only to then say: “I know I am not.”
Officers decided they didn’t have enough evidence to commit Jonchuck.
“She was smiling and appeared healthy, properly clothed and happy,” an officer wrote of the little girl.
Phoebe had long, curly hair, a wide smile and loved princesses. She hated baths and water, making her death even more gut-wrenching.
Phoebe’s mother, Michelle Kerr, was with Jonchuck for six tumultuous years, and police were called numerous times. Since 2008, Jonchuck has been charged with domestic battery six times, but in every case, the charges were dropped or never pursued.
Kerr had an arrest record consisting of child neglect, petty theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, among other charges.
Jonchuck had custody of Phoebe, and they lived with Jonchuck’s parents in Tampa.
“I always saw him as a good dad,” Kerr said. “She would always say, ‘I love you daddy.’ She loved her dad.”
Jonchuck was charged with first-degree murder. At his first court hearing, Pinellas County Judge Michael Andrews asked him if he wanted an attorney.
“I want to leave it in the hands of God,” Jonchuck said.
The judge responded: “I’m pretty sure God’s not going to be representing you in this case. You’re going to be standing trial.”
Linda Mattos, the owner of a daycare that looked after Phoebe, said Jonchuck and Phoebe were homeless in 2013. Jonchuck had a back injury from a fall at a restaurant and didn’t work, so Mattos allowed them to stay at her house for about six months, until Jonchuck started to pick fights with her.
When she asked him to leave, he tried to get revenge, Mattos said, by calling child protective services.
“He was very revengeful,” she said. “He tried to ruin me.”
It was a claim that Kerr echoed.
She said she last saw her daughter and Jonchuck on Christmas Eve. They had a nice evening together, and then he called child protective services on her and made false abuse allegations, she said.
“He does the Jekyll and Hyde. It’s just something that goes on in his head, he just wasn’t wired right,” she said.