Girl, 5, dead after dad threw her off Dick Misener Bridge on approach to Sunshine Skyway

A 5-year-old girl died early Thursday after her father threw her off a bridge near the Sunshine Skyway, according to St. Petersburg Police Department.
 
John Nicholas Jonchuck Jr., 25, is accused of tossing his daughter, Phoebe, from the Dick Misener Bridge just after midnight. 
 
He was ordered held without bond by a Pinellas County judge Thursday afternoon. When asked if he wanted a court-appointed lawyer, Jonchuck replied, "No. I'll leave it in the hands of God."
 
"I'm pretty sure God is not going to be representing you in this case," the judge told the father.
 
The judge ordered Jonchuck to reappear in court Monday, when he will once again be asked if he would like a court-appointed defender.
 
The Department of Children and Families is sending a team to Tampa to review the details of its involvement with the girl's family.
 
The agency also announced an immediate change to its hotline criteria Thursday night to trigger a child protective investigator visit within four hours and notification of law enforcement if a caregiver is believed to be having a psychotic episode (read more about that at http://shar.es/1HFF1K).

What happened?

Just after midnight, St. Petersburg police Officer William Vickers, 36, was headed home southbound on I-275 when he was passed by a Chrysler PT Cruiser. The officer said the car was going about 100 miles per hour, so he turned on his lights to stop the car.

When Officer Vickers reached the Dick Misener Bridge on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway, Jonchuck had pulled over.

Vickers watched as Jonchuck went around his vehicle, got the girl out of the car, and threw her over the railing. She fell 62 feet, police said, and plunged into the frigid water of Tampa Bay.

"The officer went directly to the bridge to see if he could locate the child in the water. The officer called out what he had just seen. He went off the side of the bridge, down a ladder to get to the water to see if he could locate the child. The subject [Jonchuck] then just drove off, not at a high rate of speed, just drove off," St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway said.
 
Two officers on their way home heard Vickers' call and waited for Jonchuck at the south end of the Skyway in Manatee County. They then followed him and eventually turned on their lights. Jonchuck made a U-turn and almost hit an officer while traveling north in the southbound lanes.
 
Manatee County deputies were able to stop Jonchuck by disabling his car using stop sticks near the University Parkway exit.

Meanwhile, multiple agencies, including St. Petersburg Fire Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard, immediately began searching for the girl.

Divers with the Eckerd College Search and Rescue team located the girl about an hour after she was thrown into the bay. She was found a mile from the bridge.

Paramedics made attempts to revive her, and the girl was rushed to All Children's Hospital, but the rescue attempt was unsuccessful.

"We don't know if the child was alive at the time the child was thrown into the water. The officer said he thought he heard the child scream, but he is not sure. We're just waiting for the report to come back from the ME's [Medical Examiner's] Office," Chief Holloway said.

Manatee County authorities held Jonchuck, who was taken to St. Petersburg for questioning.

Chief Holloway said Jonchuck refused to talk with detectives.

He is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault on an officer, fleeing and eluding and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle on a law enforcement officer.

What events led up to the incident?

A 911 call made by a Family First Law Group attorney representing Jonchuck in a paternity case involving the girl gives some insight into the events that occurred the Wednesday morning before the girl's death.
 
The attorney's office dialed Hillsborough County 911 about 10:51 a.m.
 
Genevieve Torres, the attorney, told the operator that Jonchuck arrived at her office with the girl and told the attorney she was the "creator" and "god." He wanted the attorney to read the Bible to him in Swedish, but she refused.
 
"He's nuts," Torres said.
 
The attorney said he then left in the PT Cruiser, saying he was going to a nearby church.
 
“He’s out of his mind, and he has a minor child with him driving to a church now, and I should have kept the child," she said.
 
 
Torres said that the girl had been in Jonchuck's care for the past couple of years, but that he was going to court to establish legal custody of her. During their encounter Wednesday, Jonchuck told her not to file papers in the case because "it's not going to matter anymore," the attorney told the operator.
 
The attorney repeatedly told the operator she should have kept the child instead of allowing Jonchuck to leave with her.
 
"I just regret not keeping her in the office," the attorney said.
 
"It's alright," the operator said. "You didn't do anything wrong."
 

Who is John Jonchuck?

Jonchuck has a history of arrests for domestic violence, and St. Petersburg Police said he had filed a domestic violence report against the girl's mother in November. That injunction was not granted. 
 
The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered multiple arrests:
 
In Nov. 2013, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested Jonchuck for domestic violence and driving under the influence.
 
Tampa Police arrested him in June 2013 for driving under the influence. One month before that, deputies from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested Jonchuck, again, for domestic violence. A similar arrest was also made in Jan. 2013 by Tampa Police.
 
Jonchuck was also arrested in May 2010 for battery domestic violence.
 
A family friend, Melody Dishman, said both John and Phoebe lived at her house in Tampa for a few months but disappeared in the middle of the night in October 2013.
 
Dishman had not heard from him until two days ago. Dishman said Jonchuck contacted her multiple times by phone and text message. She said the communications were harassing. 
 
"He was texting my phone...saying he's a parrish of God. So, I don't know what his mind was doing, but I did call the police, and they told me to take it to the courthouse," Dishman said.
 
Tampa Police Department confirmed Jonchuck was on its radar two days ago, when Dishman called about the harassing phone calls. Police investigated and advised Dishman on how to get a restraining order. She didn't follow through with one.
 
 
Now Dishman is left wondering why this happened.
 
"Maybe financial issues. Maybe he had nowhere to go. Maybe it was the drugs. I think the drugs made him snap," Dishman said.
 
Dishman also pointed out that Jonchuck's Facebook page was recently deactivated.
 
Jonchuck was caring for the girl because her mother had multiple sclerosis.
 
 
Kerr's friend said the couple broke up shortly after the birth of Phoebe and Phoebe's mom recently began dating a new man.
 
Phoebe remembered as an energetic, loving child
 
The girl's mother told ABC Action News her daughter was "her little angel, and really now is an angel."
 
Michelle Kerr, 29, who has two other children, said she last saw Phoebe Jonchuck on Christmas Eve.
"She was my little angel-baby. She always will be. Now she really is," Michelle Kerr said.
 
Family friends described Phoebe as a child full of life and energy who loved to laugh.
 
"She was just jumping around in front of the bonfire, said Melody Dishman, as she watched video of Phoebe taken in her front yard in October 2013.  "That's Phoebe. That's Phoebe."
 
Phoebe attended Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa. Grief counselors were at the school Thursday morning.
 
"This is a tragic loss of a sweet, intelligent little girl," Principal Susan Brill said.

On Thursday night, Manuel Almanza and his girlfriend, Melody Dishman, family friends and former roommates of John Jonchuck, organized a candlelight vigil at their Tampa home in memory of Phoebe.

The couple also erected a cross memorial decorated in Phoebe's favorite color, pink, next to the Dick Misener bridge where she was thrown.
 
"It never came across my mind that he would harm her in any type of way, but you never know anyone's tendencies or what they can do," said Dishman.
 
"I'm speechless. I felt like she was my own," Almanza said through tears.
 
At 8 p.m., after a short prayer service, fireworks were set off in honor of Phoebe. 
 
"Rest in peace sweetie. We love you," the group said.  
 
"You will be missed, but you're never forgotten," Dishman. 
 
Taking Action 
 
As the community and classmates come to grips with the tragic loss of Phoebe Jonchuck, local services are providing help to families in crisis.  Click here for resources.
 

 

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