Fate of man who dropped 5-year-old daughter off bridge to her death in hands of jury

Published 5:02 pm Monday, April 15, 2019

A Florida man who threw his 5-year-old daughter off a Tampa Bay area bridge four years ago knew what he was doing was wrong and should be found guilty of first-degree murder, a prosecutor told jurors Monday during closing arguments of his trial.

But John Jonchuck’s defense attorney told jurors that although her client dropped his daughter, Phoebe, 62 feet (18 meters) into Tampa Bay, he was insane and didn’t know what he was doing.

“We know he had an overwhelming sense of fear,” assistant public defender Jessica Manuele said. “He felt that somebody was after him and Phoebe.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Jonchuck faces a life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder by jurors who started deliberating Monday afternoon after listening to three weeks of testimony.

Paul Bolan, an assistant state attorney, told jurors Jonchuck was motivated by anger over worries that Phoebe’s mother was going to take the girl away from him and his own mother’s doting attention to her granddaughter when she had been inattentive to him growing up.

Jonchuck’s act was premediated and his fleeing the scene is proof he knew what he was doing was wrong, Bolan said.

“It was rage that drove him to it on top of that bridge,” Bolan said. “Did he know what he was doing and did he know it was wrong? The answer is clearly yes.”

Manuele told jurors Johnchuck loved Phoebe more than anything else in the world and there’s no evidence he acted out of “unbridled anger.”

Rather, Manuele said, his delusions led him to believe Phoebe was possessed, caused him to pour salt outside her window to keep spirits away and made him talk about the archangel Michael’s coming.

“At that moment, he thought he was protecting his daughter,” Manuele said. “It will never make sense because it’s insanity.”

Twelve hours before Phoebe’s death, Jonchuck’s divorce lawyer, Genevieve Torres, fearing for the girl’s safety, called a state child protection hotline, according to authorities.

Torres told the Department of Children and Families operator that Jonchuck had driven to three churches in his pajamas with Phoebe in tow that morning, called Torres “God” and asked her to translate his stepmother’s century-old Swedish Bible, which he carried and had become obsessed with. The attorney said Jonchuck also was paranoid that Phoebe wasn’t his child.

But the operator thought the attorney was more worried about Jonchuck’s safety than the girl’s and did not report the call to authorities.

Just after midnight the next day, Jonchuck’s PT Cruiser raced past officer William Vickers, who was heading home from his shift in his patrol car. He started following Jonchuck but never got close enough to read the license plate and didn’t know Phoebe was inside, according to authorities.

As they reached the bridge’s crest, Jonchuck stopped and got out. Vickers, fearing an ambush, stopped behind him, pulled his gun and yelled at Jonchuck to show his hands. He saw no weapon.

Jonchuck yelled at the officer, “You have no free will.” He grabbed Phoebe from the back seat, held her over the side momentarily and then dropped her, according to police accounts.

Jonchuck drove off but was soon arrested. Vickers scrambled down a ladder to a dock below the bridge but couldn’t see Phoebe in the dark water. A marine rescue boat was summoned, and her body was found hours later.