ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The man accused of throwing his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge early Thursday had been acting strangely hours before, calling his attorney “God” and asking her to translate a Bible in Swedish, according to sheriff’s documents.
Attorney Genevieve Torres said she met with John Jonchuck on Wednesday to discuss the custody case for his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who was found dead in Tampa Bay after police said he tossed her into the water.
Torres was so worried about Jonchuck and Phoebe that she reported the odd statements to police. They interviewed Jonchuck and his daughter as he was picking her up from a church day care and both appeared to be in good health. Jonchuck said he didn’t want to harm himself or anyone else, the documents said.
“She was smiling and appeared healthy, properly clothed and happy,” according to the documents.
A little more than twelve hours later, police said Jonchuck threw his daughter over a bridge.
Phoebe had long curly hair, a wide smile and loved princesses. She hated baths and water, making her death even more gut-wrenching.
Her parents, Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr, were together for six tumultuous years, and police were called numerous times for domestic violence-related complaints. Both had arrest records.
Jonchuck had custody of Phoebe.
“I always saw him as a good dad,” Kerr said. “She would always say, ‘I love you daddy.’ She loved her dad.”
Jonchuck is in jail facing a first-degree murder charge. At his first 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.”
Police said just after midnight Wednesday, an officer saw Jonchuck’s Chrysler PT Cruiser 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. Then 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, though the officer said he “thought he heard the child scream” before Jonchuck threw her into Tampa Bay about 60 feet below, Holloway said.
Phoebe’s body was recovered about a mile from the bridge and she was pronounced dead at 2:44 a.m. An autopsy is pending.
Police records said Jonchuck, 25, was separated from Phoebe’s 29-year-old mother and the two had a rocky relationship, with Jonchuck requesting a restraining order against her as recently as last month. Police said the request was denied. Jonchuck and Phoebe lived with his dad in Tampa.
Linda Mattos, the owner of a daycare that looked after Phoebe, said Jonchuck and Phoebe were homeless in 2013. Jonchuck had a back injury 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.
And yet, Kerr said that she never imagined Jonchuck would hurt Phoebe.
Both she and Jonchuck had several run-ins with authorities. At one point, Jonchuck filed for a restraining order against Kerr, while Kerr said he struck her in the head with a cinder block. Since 2008, Jonchuck has been charged with domestic battery six times according to court records. In every case, the charges were dropped or never pursued by the alleged victim.
She has an arrest record consisting of child neglect, petty theft, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, among other charges.
Mattos said that Jonchuck had back problems following a fall at an area restaurant, after which he sued the chain and received a cash settlement.
“He never really finished anything completely. He seemed to be the kind of person who had accidents and sued people,” she said.
But he doted on his daughter, both Kerr and Mattos said.
“She was a very smart little girl who loved princesses and who loved to color. She hated the water and she didn’t know how to swim,” Mattos said, choking up. “That’s what bothered me the most this morning because I knew how much she hated the water. She wouldn’t even take a bath.”
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