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John Jonchuck guilty of first-degree murder in 2015 death of his daughter, Phoebe

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 4/16/2019 By Josh Solomon Lane DeGregory Zachary T. Sampson, Tampa Bay Times

a man standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: John Jonchuck reenters the courtroom on April 2 after meeting with the court psychologist Jill Poorman. Jonchuck's lawyers said he had been hallucinating. Poorman evaluated Jonchuck to determine if he remained competent to stand trial. © [SCOTT KEELER/Tampa Bay Times/TN/Tampa Bay Times/TNS John Jonchuck reenters the courtroom on April 2 after meeting with the court psychologist Jill Poorman. Jonchuck's lawyers said he had been hallucinating. Poorman evaluated Jonchuck to determine if he remained competent to stand trial. LARGO, Florida — John Jonchuck is guilty of first-degree murder, a jury ruled Tuesday, and should spend the rest of his life in prison for dropping his daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge into the chilly, dark waters of Tampa Bay.

He was not facing the death penalty.

Over more than four weeks, jurors heard a tangled narrative of Jonchuck’s mental history. His public defenders argued that he was insane at the time of the killing, driven by imagined voices and delusions, unaware that what he was doing was wrong. Their case was built on recollections of Jonchuck hearing an old Swedish Bible knocking, of listening to Phoebe chanting when she touched it, of thinking she was possessed, and that he was the Pope or God.

It did not sway the jury, which ultimately decided that Jonchuck, now 29, not only knew killing Phoebe was wrong, but planned the murder before reaching the top of the bridge. Prosecutors said he was acting out of vengeance, killing Phoebe so her mother could never get custody of her and because he was bitter that his own mother loved the little girl with affection she never showed for him.

The decision comes four years after the horrific morning of Jan. 8, 2015, when the region awoke to the inconceivable news that a father had dropped his daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge, on the approach to the landmark Sunshine Skyway.

Phoebe loved the color pink, angels and fluttering butterflies. She didn’t know how to swim. Her smiling face was burned into the area’s collective conscience; a makeshift memorial lingers at the edge of the bridge.

Since her death, the prevailing question has gone unanswered: Why?

In rendering a verdict, jurors gave their assumed answer: Evil.

No one knows what was going through Jonchuck’s mind that night when he raced to the top of the bridge, scooped his daughter from the back seat, yelled at a police officer — then dropped her into Tampa Bay.

Twelve lay people had to decide.

Jurors heard from law enforcement officers and mental health experts, family members and forensic psychiatrists. They looked at autopsy photos and watched video interrogations. They missed a month of work, of reading the news and being on social media.

They learned about a lifetime of struggle, scheming and violence. And a kindergartener who was afraid of water. Who begged to stay with her daddy, the night before he killed her.

Jonchuck had always been troubled and temperamental, desperate for attention and prone to violent outbursts, his friends and family said. His parents split up when he was young, and he spent childhood bouncing between his dad’s and uncles’ houses. His mother, who used cocaine and was bipolar, mostly was absent.

During the trial, psychologists said that abandonment left Jonchuck angry and suffering from attachment issues.

He got thrown out of a dozen preschools. He was 5 — Phoebe’s age — when his family started taking him to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed drugs to stabilize his moods. He was 12 the first time he was arrested, for threatening his dad with a butcher knife.

In middle school, Jonchuck was loud and popular; he put on puppet shows in the cafeteria. He often had bruises and black eyes. He told his friends his dad beat him, told them he hated his dad.

Child protection officers investigated Jonchuck’s dad four times, but never arrested him.

In eighth grade, Jonchuck told everyone he was gay. The next year, he dropped out of school. He was 17 when he climbed on the roof of his dad’s duplex and slit his arm with a knife — a desperate attempt to get out of his house, one psychologist said.

That was the first time his family committed him. By their count, Jonchuck has been Baker Acted 27 times.

In many ways, his life — and Phoebe’s death — show failures in mental health treatment and child protective services. Jonchuck had prescriptions, but couldn’t always afford to fill them, or didn’t want to. When he didn’t have insurance, he stopped going to treatment.

The Department of Children and Families knew about Jonchuck and Phoebe, and were called to check on them multiple times. Both were left in their broken homes.

At 18, Jonchuck was bouncing between friends’ houses, working at a strip club, doing drugs. He drank a lot, smoked pot and spice, used meth so often his fingers were singed from the little glass pipe. Sometimes, the drugs helped him relax, friends said. Other times, they made him mean.

“He was a monster,” said his uncle, Bryan Morris.

Jonchuck was high when he met Michelle Kerr, a buxom blonde who was five years older. He told her she was beautiful. “Maybe,” he said, “I’m not gay.”

He asked her to marry him four times. He enrolled at Hillsborough Community College with her, slit her tires in a jealous rage, threw her mother’s wedding ring out a window. “He’d be as sweet as anything,” Kerr said. “Then go all Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

She wouldn’t marry him. But they moved in together, and she got pregnant. They named their daughter Phoebe, after Jonchuck’s chihuahua.

Their relationship was rocky, riddled with drugs and fights. Michelle was diagnosed with multiple-sclerosis soon after Phoebe was born, and became unable to drive. So when they split up, Jonchuck said he would take care of their daughter.

Phoebe had long, honey-colored hair that had never been cut. She loved Blues Clues, thick steaks, books about dogs — and her daddy. When she sat on Santa’s lap, she asked what he wanted for Christmas.

Jonchuck dragged her between friends’ houses, his dad’s duplex, and his uncles’ home, and his mom’s apartment. He filed injunctions against Kerr so she couldn’t see Phoebe. During the month before he killed his daughter, Jonchuck started worrying that Kerr or his mother would take Phoebe from him.

That’s why he went to a custody lawyer that last day, before Phoebe died. He told the lawyer he was the creator, and asked her to read a Swedish Bible, which he said he had heard knocking. The lawyer called child protection services, then the police. But a Department of Children and Families hotline worker decided not to send anyone to talk to him. And deputies, who interviewed Jonchuck at a church where he went begging for an exorcism, decided he was okay. They let him go, with Phoebe.

Hours later, she was dead.

A police officer watched him throw her off the bridge, so there’s no doubt he did it. Jurors had to determine if he knew what he was doing, and that it was wrong. They had to hear that she fell 62 feet into the frigid waters of Tampa Bay. And they had to look at autopsy photos of Phoebe’s pale, bruised body.

Phoebe’s mother didn’t testify at the trial. Neither did Jonchuck’s uncles, who helped raise him. Or any of his friends. During three weeks of testimony, no one from Jonchuck’s family came to court for him, or Phoebe.

His mother took the stand early, and only for a few minutes, saying Phoebe couldn’t swim, and was afraid of water. As she left court, she mouthed to her son, “I love you.”

His dad also testified briefly. He said he threw his son out of the house at 18 “because he damaged my house, scared my wife.” Jonchuck was at his dad’s house, with Phoebe, that night he scooped her from her bed, carried her into his PT Cruiser, and strapped her into her car seat. His dad said he saw them as late as 10:30 p.m., and Jonchuck wasn’t acting particularly strange. He testified that he didn’t hear them leave. In court, he never really looked at his son.

Most of the witnesses were law enforcement officers who saw Jonchuck the night he killed Phoebe. And experts who argued he was either evil or insane.

Prosecutors painted a portrait of an angry, vengeful man who couldn’t hold a job, cooked up money-making schemes, and planned to kill his daughter at least a day in advance.

Defense lawyers emphasized how long Jonchuck had been treated for mental health issues, and how he became psychotic days before he dropped his daughter, ranting about God, and saving the world.

Both teams of attorneys spent a lot of time debating what witnesses would be allowed to say on the stand. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Chris Helinger kept sending the jurors out of the courtroom so she could conference with the attorneys.

There were a lot of things the jurors didn’t get to hear — including the word “psychopath.” And a paralegal’s testimony that, on the day before Phoebe died, Jonchuck had told her not to worry about his custody case, saying, “If I can’t have her, then no one else will.”

The judge called that a “killer statement.” But because prosecutors hadn’t told defense attorneys about it, jurors never got to hear it.

State attorneys Doug Ellis and Paul Bolan brought in a psychologist who said Jonchuck had mental illness, but that he knew what he was doing that night — and that it was wrong. Jonchuck told the officer who watched him carry Phoebe from his car, “You have no free will.” After he let her go, he raced south over the Skyway Bridge, then made a U-turn to elude police. Both of those actions, psychologist Peter Bursten said, show Jonchuck was sane when he committed the crime.

“A guy who, right up to the murder, who has some appreciation of legal boundaries,” the psychologist said. “It doesn’t mean he was not having psychotic symptoms. You can have both.”

Emily Lazarou, a psychiatrist hired by the prosecution, testified that she doesn’t think Jonchuck is even mentally ill, much less insane. She said Jonchuck couldn’t have bipolar disorder because he took stimulants as a boy, which could bring on bouts of mania.

She thinks Jonchuck was malingering — making things up. His stories about having to sacrifice his daughter and himself to save the world weren’t caused by hallucinations, she told the jury. If Jonchuck really thought he had to sacrifice them both, why didn’t he jump off the bridge?

Lazarou was the most controversial witness during the proceedings. On Friday, defense lawyers called a supervisor from the state mental hospital where Jonchuck has been housed for the past four years. Heather Davis testified that before Lazarou even met Jonchuck, the psychiatrist said she knew he wasn’t insane. “I was kind of shocked,” Davis testified. Lazarou said she never said that.

Defense lawyers Jane McNeill, Jessica Manuele and Greg Williams called another two psychologists, and psychiatrist Michael Maher, who said taking Adderall would not preclude anyone from being bipolar. Maher also said that there was no way someone could malinger symptoms for four years.

Throughout the trial, jurors took notes on yellow legal pads, looked at evidence, asked experts questions.

And they watched Jonchuck, slumped at the defense table in a borrowed dress shirt and tie, slightly rocking, his mouth hanging open. They didn’t know that, just a couple of weeks into the trial, his lawyers had told the judge that he was hallucinating again, hearing voices. Or that two psychologists had evaluated him in the jail and determined he was competent to come to court.

He never took the stand. Jurors never heard his voice. Except in videos they watched.

In one, Lazarou asks how he’s feeling. “Kind of sad,” Jonchuck says slowly, his speech slightly slurred. What makes you feel sad? the psychiatrist asks.

In the video, Jonchuck hesitates. He says, sniffling, “Because I was her father and she loved me so much and I always told her I’d never let anything happen to her.

“And I did.”

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