No one disputes John Jonchuck dropped his 5-year-old daughter from a Florida bridge to her death four years ago, but whether he is a murderer or insane will soon be up to a jury to decide.
Jonchuck, 29, goes on trial Monday for the Jan. 8, 2015, death of his daughter Phoebe, whom he dropped 62 feet into Tampa Bay as a St. Petersburg police officer watched helplessly. Jonchuck is charged with first-degree murder, but prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. If convicted, he will automatically go to prison for life.
If his attorneys’ insanity defense works, he would be sent to a psychiatric hospital and it’s unlikely he would ever be released. To be eligible, he would have to prove he was no longer mentally ill or dangerous. Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger told the Tampa Bay Times he knows of no Florida case where a killer was found not guilty by reason of insanity of first-degree murder and eventually released.
“He’ll be in a state prison for the rest of his life, or a state hospital for the rest of his life,” Dillinger said.
Successful insanity defenses are rare. Under Florida law, Jonchuck’s attorneys must convince the jury his mental illness was so severe that he didn’t know what he was doing or that it was wrong.
Jonchuck did have a long history of mental problems before he and his daughter ever reached the Dick Misener Bridge – his family told the Times he had been involuntarily committed 27 times – and seemed to be having a breakdown.
Twelve hours before Phoebe’s death, Jonchuck’s divorce lawyer, Genevieve Torres, called a state child protection hotline, fearing for the girl’s safety.
Torres told the Department of Children and Families operator that Jonchuck had driven to three churches in his pajamas with Phoebe in tow that morning, called Torres “God” and asked her to translate his stepmother’s century-old Swedish Bible, which he carried and had become obsessed with. The attorney said Jonchuck was also paranoid that Phoebe wasn’t his child.
“He’s calling the office every five minutes and saying these religious things and saying the child might not be his – it just really concerns me,” Torres told an operator. She added, “It’s all craziness and it doesn’t make any sense and he’s out of his mind.”
Torres also told the operator, who was inexperienced, that the department had an open investigation after an earlier caller accused Jonchuck of violence, substance abuse, and inadequate supervision.
But the operator thought the attorney was more worried about Jonchuck’s safety than the girl’s and did not report the call to authorities.
Just after midnight the next day, Jonchuck’s PT Cruiser raced past officer William Vickers, who was heading home from his shift in his patrol car. He started following Jonchuck, but never got close enough to read the license plate and didn’t know Phoebe was inside.
As they reached the bridge’s crest, Jonchuck stopped and got out. Vickers, fearing an ambush, stopped behind him, pulled his gun and yelled at Jonchuck to show his hands. He saw no weapon.
Jonchuck yelled at the officer, “You have no free will.” He grabbed Phoebe from the back seat, held her over the side momentarily and then dropped her. Vickers thinks she screamed.
Jonchuck drove off, but was soon arrested. Vickers scrambled down a ladder to a dock below the bridge, but couldn’t see Phoebe in the dark water. A marine rescue boat was summoned and her body was found hours later.