ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Phoebe Jonchuck, the 5-year-old girl who police say was thrown from a bridge Thursday by her father, had long curly hair, a wide smile and loved princesses. She hated baths and water, making her death even more gut-wrenching.
Her parents, John 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.
An attorney who had represented Jonchuck in the past reported him to police and child welfare workers on Wednesday, though it wasn’t immediately clear why. 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 was arrested shortly after he threw his daughter and was in jail facing a first-degree murder charge, police said.
Just after midnight Wednesday, police 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 in the dark, early morning hours about a mile from the bridge. Rescue crews tried to revive her. 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.
Jonchuck’s first court hearing is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
Jail records didn’t list the name of Jonchuck’s attorney.
Genevieve Torres, Jonchuck’s lawyer on a paternity suit, reported him to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Children and Families on Wednesday, said her legal assistant, Kyrsten Malcolm, who wouldn’t elaborate. Police confirmed the report but didn’t say what it was about.
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.”