The trial of John Jonchuck: Everything you need to know about the case

In 2015, he dropped his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge. Now a jury has found the father guilty of first-degree murder. Jonchuck, 29, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Illustration by RON BORRESEN, photo by DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Illustration by RON BORRESEN, photo by DIRK SHADD | Times
Published March 15
Updated March 15

 

After the trial

The defense is likely to appeal the verdict and raise legal questions about how the trial was conducted. We’ll chronicle fallout from the case and what happens next here.

Teary, frustrating, haunting: Inside the room where jurors determined the fate of John Jonchuck

John Jonchuck asks for a new trial

Was it wrong to let jurors talk to witnesses in the Jonchuck trial?

Daily trial coverage

Catch up with our previous live blogs:

Day 1: It begins | Day 2: Jury selection continues | Day 3: Behind schedule | Day 4: The road to 70 | Day 5: Narrowing it down | Day 6: Opening statements | Day 7: Watch prosecutors establish their case | Day 8: Proving the murder | Day 9: Defense introduces insanity | Day 10: Bring on the experts | Day 11: Competency questions halt the trial | Day 12: With competency confirmed, the case goes on | Day 13: The defense wraps its case | Day 14: Another delay | Day 15: Prosecutors’ rebuttal begins in earnest | Day 16: Through fits and starts, testimony continues | Day 17: The prosecution brings forth a controversial witness | Day 18: Rebuttal continues | Day 19: Testimony ends | Day 20: Closing arguments and deliberation | Day 21: Guilty

John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the fourth day of jury selection on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]John Jonchuck appears before Judge Chris Helinger during the fourth day of jury selection on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Here’s what to know about the John Jonchuck trial

After four years, John Jonchuck is finally set to stand trial on a charge that he murdered his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, by dropping her from a bridge into the cold water of Tampa Bay.

Soon after his arrest in the early hours of Jan. 8, 2015, Jonchuck was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. He has received medication ever since in the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center outside Gainesville. Doctors say he is now ready for court.

There is no doubt he did it. A police officer, just off a late shift, saw the then 25-year-old father drop his little girl over the edge. Jonchuck in court records admitted he did it and has described voices that urged him to kill her.

The trial will instead hinge on a basic question: Was he evil or insane?

Phoebe fell 62 feet, a few horrifying seconds before she hit the water. But the story begins much earlier, sweeping across generations of domestic strife, drugs, religious fixation and violence. It all led to one moment, on top of the bridge, and the still unanswered question of whether John Jonchuck knew what he was doing was wrong.

John Jonchuck was in court for a pretrial hearing on Thursday, March 14. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]John Jonchuck was in court for a pretrial hearing on Thursday, March 14. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Jonchuck timeline

John Nicholas Jonchuck Jr. was born in Tampa in 1989 and had a tumultuous childhood. His mother left him around the time he was 5 in the care of an uncle before his father came back to raise him. At 12, he attacked his father, though he said it was in self defense. As a young adult, Jonchuck was arrested multiple times and charged with domestic violence against his mom and Phoebe’s mom . He also has a documented history of drug and alcohol abuse. He has been involuntarily committed 27 times under the Baker Act, which is used when you are deemed a danger to yourself or others.

The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck: Read Lane DeGregory’s three-part series on John’s life and Phoebe’s death.

https://arc-anglerfish-arc2-prod-tbt.s3.amazonaws.com/public/XGIWFFKBWBDMXB45XAHR7JL4JY.pngJohn Jonchuck Jr.'s mug shots. Row one: May 2008, May 2010, February 2012 and January 2013. Row two: May 2013, June 2013, November 2013 and January 2015.John Jonchuck Jr.'s mug shots. Row one: May 2008, May 2010, February 2012 and January 2013. Row two: May 2013, June 2013, November 2013 and January 2015.

The events before and after Phoebe’s death

Drone footage of the Dick Misener Bridge, taken in March 2019. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]Drone footage of the Dick Misener Bridge, taken in March 2019. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Jan. 1, 2015

During the first week of January, John texts six people asking them to forgive him. No one responds. He also becomes obsessed with his stepmom’s Swedish Bible and spreads salt around the doorways to keep out evil spirits. He tells his stepmom Phoebe is a demon.

The antique Swedish Bible found in John Jonchuck's backpack after he was arrested and charged with killing Phoebe. [Courtesy of the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office]The antique Swedish Bible found in John Jonchuck's backpack after he was arrested and charged with killing Phoebe. [Courtesy of the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office]

Jan. 7, 2015

John’s lawyer, Genevieve Torres, calls DCF, saying that he is delusional and has a child with him. Since John is at his stepmom’s house, and his stepmom also is there with Phoebe, DCF decides not to investigate. Later, John takes Phoebe to three churches, begging priests for an exorcism. When he comes out of one priest’s office, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies are waiting. But the priest says John isn’t a danger to himself or anyone else. So they let him go. That night, he and Phoebe eat dinner with his parents and his mom, and fall asleep on the couch. About 10 p.m., his dad and stepmom hear the front door open.

Jan. 8, 2015

Around midnight, a policeman sees John speeding toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and pulls behind him, lights flashing. When John stops, the officer watches as he carries Phoebe to the bridge railing — and drops her into Tampa Bay. A rescue crew later finds her body floating. John leads police on a high-speed chase across the bridge and is eventually arrested and charged with murder, assault, fleeing and eluding police. Officers hold him for a mental evaluation. That night, the DCF secretary calls for an investigation into how Phoebe’s previous cases were handled.

July 15, 2015

The officer who watched John drop Phoebe, then tried to find her, is rewarded for his rescue efforts.

Sept. 8, 2015

Doctors say John is still incompetent to stand trial.

March 3, 2017

Jonchuck deemed competent to stand trial.

Sept. 17, 2018

The Jonchuck trial is delayed just a week before it’s supposed to begin.

March 14, 2019

At last pre-trial hearing, defense loses two motions. Debate centers on whether experts can describe Jonchuck as a psychopath.

John Jonchuck exits the courtroom during recent hearing. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]John Jonchuck exits the courtroom during recent hearing. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Who’s who

Phoebe Jade Jonchuck

Killed Jan., 8, 2015, at age 5. She was in kindergarten at Cleveland Elementary.

Grandmother Michele Jonchuck holds Phoebe Jonchuck's doll and a photo of Phoebe during a press conference. [Times (2015)]Grandmother Michele Jonchuck holds Phoebe Jonchuck's doll and a photo of Phoebe during a press conference. [Times (2015)]

John Jonchuck Jr., 29

Phoebe’s father. An unemployed telemarketer with a history of arrests for DUI, battery and domestic violence. He was Baker Acted 27 times.

In recent years, John Jonchuck has shed a lot of weight. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]In recent years, John Jonchuck has shed a lot of weight. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Michelle Kerr, 33

Phoebe’s mother. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis right after Phoebe was born. Accused over the years of child neglect, forgery and shoplifting.

Michelle Kerr, Phoebe's mother, has had her own legal troubles. [Times (2015)]Michelle Kerr, Phoebe's mother, has had her own legal troubles. [Times (2015)]

Michele “Maw Maw” Jonchuck, 55

Phoebe’s paternal grandmother. She abandoned her son when he was 5 and has her own history of arrests and drug abuse.

Michele Jonchuck watches her son during a competency hearing. [Times (2016)]Michele Jonchuck watches her son during a competency hearing. [Times (2016)]

Bryan Morris, 54

Maw Maw’s brother, John’s uncle. Owns a commercial roofing company. Helped raise John and wanted to adopt Phoebe.

Tim Maynard, 58

Bryan’s partner for 29 years.

Bryan Morris, at left, and Tim Maynard.Bryan Morris, at left, and Tim Maynard.

John “Chuck” Jonchuck Sr., 62

John’s father. A construction worker with a history of arrests, including domestic violence against John’s mother and John.

Arrest photo from 2011 [Courtesy of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]Arrest photo from 2011 [Courtesy of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

Michelle “Mickey” Jonchuck, deceased.

John’s stepmother and Phoebe’s step-grandmother. Retired from the Air Force, she helped raise John and sometimes took in Phoebe.

Mickey Jonchuck, John's stepmother, arrives at Cleveland Elementary School for the dedication of Mickey Jonchuck, John's stepmother, arrives at Cleveland Elementary School for the dedication of "Phoebe's Place," a reading garden. [Times (2015)]

William “Drew” Vickers, 40

St. Petersburg Police officer who pulled John over on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and watched him drop Phoebe over the side.

St. Petersburg police officer William St. Petersburg police officer William "Drew" Vickers. [Times (2015)]

Genevieve Torres, 38

Tampa attorney. John took Phoebe to visit her the day before Phoebe died. He insisted the lawyer could read a Swedish Bible to him. After he left, she called police.

Attorney Genevieve H. Torres in her office. [Times (2015)]Attorney Genevieve H. Torres in her office. [Times (2015)]

Jessica Manuele, 36

Jonchuck’s lead counsel. She has been a public defender for nearly 12 years.

Defense attorney Jessica Manuele [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]Defense attorney Jessica Manuele [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Jane McNeill, 42

She has been an assistant public defender for more than 15 years, 14 in the Pinellas-Pasco office.

Defense attorneys Jane McNeill, center, and Greg Williams. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]Defense attorneys Jane McNeill, center, and Greg Williams. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Greg Williams, 57

He has been an assistant public defender for more than 30 years and has been trying murder cases for 25.

Defense attorney Greg Williams [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times ]Defense attorney Greg Williams [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Douglas Ellis, 58

A division chief in the state attorney’s office. He joined the staff there in 1985.

Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis [Times (2018)]Assistant State Attorney Doug Ellis [Times (2018)]

Paul Bolan, 39

A trial attorney for the prosecution. He’s been on staff since 2007.

Assistant State Attorney Paul Bolan [Times (2018)]Assistant State Attorney Paul Bolan [Times (2018)]

Chris Helinger, 68

Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge. Has been on the bench for more than a decade; was an assistant public defender for more than 25 years. She has presided in about two dozen murder trials.

Circuit Judge Chris Helinger on the bench before a recess after John Jonchuck appeared in court for a pretrial hearing. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]Circuit Judge Chris Helinger on the bench before a recess after John Jonchuck appeared in court for a pretrial hearing. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Catch up on coverage

The week of Phoebe’s murder

Police: Girl, 5, dead after father drops her from Sunshine Skyway approach (Jan. 8, 2015)

Eckerd College students found girl, 5, who was dropped off bridge by father (Jan. 8, 2015)

Parents’ rocky relationship preceded girl’s death near Skyway (Jan. 9, 2015)

Phoebe Jonchuck was alive when thrown from bridge near Sunshine Skyway (Jan. 10, 2015)

The Dick Misener Bridge, center, on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. [Times (2015)]The Dick Misener Bridge, center, on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. [Times (2015)]

Fallout after Phoebe’s death

DCF acknowledges failures in its handling of Phoebe Jonchuck case (Feb. 9, 2015)

Jonchuck mentally incompetent to stand trial in death of daughter Phoebe off bridge (Feb. 26, 2015)

Records illuminate erratic days before Phoebe Jonchuck’s death (May 1, 2015)

Officer recounts the last moments of Phoebe Jonchuck’s life (July 17, 2015)

Michele Jonchuck, after her granddaughter's funeral, speaks during a press conference at Lake Magdalene Methodist Church in Tampa. [Times (2015)]Michele Jonchuck, after her granddaughter's funeral, speaks during a press conference at Lake Magdalene Methodist Church in Tampa. [Times (2015)]

The court process begins

Judge finds John Jonchuck competent to stand trial in death of 5-year-old daughter Phoebe (March 3, 2017)

State drops death penalty bid against Jonchuck, accused of dropping his daughter off bridge (Aug. 27, 2018)

John Jonchuck says ‘voices’ drove him to drop daughter from bridge (Dec. 4, 2018)

Circuit Court Judge Paul Levine appoints John Jonchuck Jr. an attorney during a hearing just after Phoebe's death. [Times (2015)]Circuit Court Judge Paul Levine appoints John Jonchuck Jr. an attorney during a hearing just after Phoebe's death. [Times (2015)]

The trial of John Jonchuck

Jonchuck judge is willing to experiment with jury selection (Feb. 15, 2019)

The trial of John Jonchuck comes down to one question: Evil or insane? (March 15, 2019)

The trial of John Jonchuck: Why we’ll be there every day (March 15, 2019)

 

 

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