ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A man seen throwing his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge refused to answer questions Monday as a judge appointed him a public defender.
John Jonchuck had seemed reject a court-appointed attorney last week when he said he wanted to leave his fate “in the hands of God.”
Police say 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was likely alive when her father sped past a police officer early Thursday morning, then pulled over to the side of the bridge. The officer could only watch from a distance as John Jonchuck pulled the girl from the back seat and dropped her to her death in the waters of Florida’s Tampa Bay.
Jonchuck’s divorce lawyer had warned authorities of his mental state about 12 hours earlier, calling the local sheriff’s office for help. Florida’s child protection hotline also was called with a plea for intervention. Deputies met with the father and daughter at a church but found no reason to take the girl away. Child protective investigators decided not to investigate.
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The director of Florida’s Department of Children and Families pledged Monday to do a better job of checking on parents and other caregivers with mental health and substance abuse issues. To start, a “Critical Incident Response Team” will examine the agency’s prior interactions with the Jonchuck family, DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said.
“I think our real issue is, how we deal with complex substance abuse issues and mental health issues and families that are fragmented,” he said. “Based on the criteria, they decided it didn’t rise to the level of a formal investigation,” Carroll added. “To me, my gut says we should investigate that every time.”
In response to Phoebe’s killing, Carroll changed the agency’s hotline protocol: From now on, if a caregiver seems to be experiencing a psychotic episode, a child protective investigator will be required to visit within four hours.
The girl’s friends and family held a candlelight vigil Saturday night. Visitation for Phoebe is scheduled for Tuesday and her funeral is Wednesday.
Jonchuck’s next court appearance, on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, and aggravated fleeing and eluding, is scheduled for February. He’s being held without bond.