NewsPinellas County


John Jonchuck found guilty of first-degree murder for throwing his daughter off a bridge in 2015

Sentenced to life in prison
Posted at 2:03 PM, Apr 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-17 07:20:08-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — John Jonchuck was found guilty of first-degree murder for throwing his 5-year-old daughter off of a Tampa Bay area bridge in 2015. Jurors deliberated for approximately 7 hours on Monday and Tuesday before convicting Jonchuck on Tuesday.

More on the case: Murder trial to start for John Jonchuck, man accused of throwing daughter off bridge

ABC Action News was in the courtroom throughout the entire murder trial that lasted nearly a month.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019
The jury has found John Jonchuck guilty of first-degree murder. Jurors deliberated for approximately seven hours on Monday and Tuesday before convicting Jonchuck. When asked if he understood that the verdict carried an automatic life sentence, Jonchuck said "yes, your honor." Jonchuck hugged his attorneys and was fingerprinted and taken out of the courtroom by bailiffs.

Monday, April 15, 2019
During closing arguments on Monday, prosecutors told the jury that John Jonchuck should be found guilty of first-degree murder because he knew what he was doing was wrong when he threw his 5-year-old daughter off a Tampa Bay area bridge in 2015. Jonchuck's defense attorney told jurors that although her client dropped his daughter Phoebe into Tampa Bay, he was insane and didn't know what he was donig. Jonchuck faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. The jury deliberated following closing arguments, but could not reach a verdict and was released shortly before 7 p.m. They will reconvene Tuesday morning at 9 a.m.

Friday, April 12, 2019
Testimony in the trial has concluded and closing arguments will begin on Monday at 11 a.m.

Monday, April 8, 2019
A juror called out sick on Monday, so that juror was replaced with an alternate. Without the jury present, the judge questioned Jonchuck to confirm he was waiving his right to testify.

Thursday, April 4, 2019
Public defenders representing John Jonchuck have rested their case. Now, it's up to the state prosecutors to present their final witnesses. The prosecutors will try to rebut Jonchuck's attorneys claim of insanity. They will present witnesses that claim Jonchuck was sane when he dropped his daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge. Thursday, one of the jurors was dismissed from the case because he no longer lives in Pinellas County. Judge Chris Helinger said she does not know why he received a summons in the mail considering he moved to Pasco County in December. “The screw up was from the clerk's office," Helinger said. "He got a subpoena at his trinity address. Nobody knows how that happened.”

The defenses' main witness Thursday was Michael Maher, a psychiatrist who treated Jonchuck. “He told me he remembered dropping Phoebe off the bridge. He remembered feeling that this somehow would make her safe,” Maher added. Maher says he has no question. He believes Jonchuck was insane when he dropped his daughter off a 62 foot high bridge. "In my opinion, he also was not aware of the wrongfulness of his actions.”

Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Dr. Richard Cipriano, the second psychologist to examine John Jonchuck on the issue of mental competency, says Jonchuck is competent to proceed. Jonchuck met with Cipriano this morning at the Pinellas County jail. Jonchuck's attorneys were questioning if he was competent enough for the trial to continue. Jonchuck's attorneys told the judge that Jonchuck has been hearing and seeing things that don't exist since the night before his murder trial began. Tuesday, it took the court psychologist less than an hour to decide that Jonchuck was still competent to stand trial. Yet, his attorneys insisted on a second re-evaluation. Cipriano said Jonchuck has a clear idea of what's happening in the trial and the penalties he will face.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019
The judge put the trial on hold and asked the court psychologist to examine Jonchuck to see if he's competent to stand trial. However, just about 30 minutes later, the court psychologist found that Jonchuck is indeed competent. A second psychologist will evaluate him Wednesday morning.

Thursday, March 28, 2019
A priest from St. Paul Catholic Church in Tampa testified Thursday saying Jonchuck came to him in January of 2015 asking to be baptized, but the priest said Jonchuck became agitated when the priest explained that it would take a year to get baptized into the Catholic church. The priest also said that Jonchuck brought in the Swedish Bible that was shown as evidence.

A receptionist from Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church testified that on January 7, 2015, Jonchuck brought Phoebe and his stepmom to the church. She said he seemed fixated on a claim he was making, which was a claim that he was related to the Pope.

Dr. Jose Hernandez, a psychiatrist at the Pinellas County Jail said when Jonchuck was at the jail in January of 2015 he would not take his medication but said he does take his medicine now. The psychiatrist said when he asked Jonchuck why he was there, he said it was because he killed his daughter. When asked why he killed his daughter, Jonchuck told him it was because he (Jonchuck) was "impotent."

Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Testimony resumed Tuesday with a handful of St. Petersburg Police Officers. First to the stand: Officer Jenna Gillis. She was one of the officers who followed Jonchuck as he drove the wrong direction down I-75 in the moments after his daughter's death. When Jonchuck made a U-turn on the interstate, Officer Gillis told the jurors she was forced to veer out of his way. The second person to testify was Matthew Laliberte. Laliberte helped with the arrest of Jonchuck. He told jurors about how officers broke Jonchuck's driver side window to pull him out and arrest him. The third person to take the stand was Officer Julie Bryan. Bryan arrived after many of the other officers and watched as Jonchuck was taken into custody. She was responsible for taking Jonchuck's personal items into evidence. Tuesday morning, Officer Bryan cut open a brown bag of evidence to reveal Jonchuck's Swedish bible. The bible has been a key part of the case as Jonchuck is described as being obsessed with it and even sleeping with it under his pillow at night.

The next person called to the witness stand was Gerrod Huff, a deputy with the Manatee County Sheriff's Department. Huff spoke with Jonchuck in the interrogation room. A long video clip was played for the jurors showing Jonchuck sleeping, lounging on one arm and asking for his bible. Far into the encounter, Jonchuck asks for his daughter. "How's Phoebe?" he asked. Deputy Huff asks, "Who's Phoebe?" Jonchuck replies back "Phoebe was my daughter. Pheobe Jonchuck. Is she okay?"

Phoebe's grandmother, Michele Jonchuck also took the stand. "She was my granddaughter, my angel, my princess," she cried while looking at a photo of Phoebe. Prosecutors' questions to her focused on the fact that Phoebe did not know how to swim. "Was she afraid of the water?" prosecutors asked. "Yes," Michele Jonchuck answered.

Monday March 25, 2019
Jonchuck’s public defender said it, again and again, Monday: “Jonchuck's behavior does not make sense,” describing his actions in the days before his daughter Pheobe’s death. Jonchuck's attorneys went from listing off a laundry list of Jonchuck’s medications to describing the bazaar action of Jonchuck sprinkling salt across his home to ward away demons.

Jonchuck’s defense team told jurors that John has struggled with mental illness since he was 5 years old, adding that stress could have been a major factor to push a man diagnosed with psychosis over the edge.

“Stress is a trigger. Stress can push somebody over the edge. You have the diagnosis and it can push you,” Jonchuck's attorney Jessica Manuele said.

The prosecutors, on the other hand, spent the day trying to set up a motive for Jonchuck’s behavior, including the fact that Phoebe’s mother (his ex-girlfriend) had a new relationship brewing.

Prosecutors also stressed that Jonchuck wouldn’t have run from police, at one point going the wrong way down the highway, unless he knew that his actions in throwing his daughter off a bridge were wrong.

“The defendant was sane and knew exactly what he was doing when he committed the murder. The defendant fled the murder. He knew what he had done and he knew he had to leave," State Prosecutor Paul Bolen said.

Jonchuck’s sanity was the focus of opening statements. The question: could his mental illness have kept him from realizing the magnitude of his actions?

Monday also brought the first two witnesses. Up first to the stand, St. Pete Police Officer William Vickers, who says he watched as Jonchuck first darted by him speeding 100 miles per hour towards the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Then, telling jurors he watched as Jonchuck scooped his five-year-old daughter out of the car and dropped her over the edge of the bridge.

Prosecutors are using him as their star witness putting emphasis on the fact that it’s not every day that an officer witnesses an alleged murder.

Next up to the stand: Willie Wynn, a skyway toll booth operator, who told jurors he witnessed Jonchuck speeding through the area on his way to the Dick Misener Bridge.

Over the next month of this trial, attorneys plan to call in a long list of people to testify— from officers, to skyway toll booth operators, to mental health experts.

John Jonchuck's lawyers plan to use an insanity defense. They must convince the jurors that Jonchuck's mental illness kept him from knowing what he was doing when he dropped his daughter off a bridge and fled from police.

Friday, March 22, 2019
The week-long jury selection was finalized at 7 p.m. on Friday. Nine men and seven women will serve on the jury. 12 will serve as jurors and 4 will be used as alternates.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019
The quest for impartial jurors continues as Judge Chris Helinger is hoping to get a pool of 70 jurors to move forward to the next round of questions. Jonchuck appeared in court Tuesday morning wearing a light yellow collared shirt and dark tie. He, again, seemed calm and composed. Jonchuck only spoke briefly with his attorneys. His eyes moved from one potential juror to the next as they filed into the courtroom.

Monday, March 18, 2019
Today was the start of jury selection. 1,200 potential jurors were summoned as part of the case. Groups are being called in and asked their knowledge of the case, their flexibility over the upcoming month and whether they could set aside what they know about the case to make a non-biased opinion.

Two things are hindering Judge Helinger and the attorneys from finding potential jurors:

  1. The time constraints associated with this trial. The case could take a month to wind through the court system.
  2. The publicity surrounding the case. The crime has received international media coverage since Jonchuck admitted to throwing his daughter off a 62-foot-high bridge on January 8, 2015.

After a long day of interviewing potential jurors, only thirteen jurors made the short list from the morning group and thirty-four in the afternoon group were told to return, although many of them did not make it through the entire round of questioning.

Jonchuck, dressed in a light blue shirt and crimson striped tie, kept a straight face as he glanced over at the pool of jurors who could determine his fate.

ABC Action News Reporter Sarah Hollenbeck contributed to this story.