John Jonchuck found guilty of murder for dropping daughter off bridge

Pinellas County

John Jonchuck is accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe to her death off the Dick Misener Bridge near the Sunshine Skyway in St. Petersburg four years ago. Jonchuck’s defense attorneys are trying to prove that he was insane when he killed his daughter.

News Channel 8 has been in the courtroom every day for the trial. Here’s what’s happened so far:

THE VERDICT:

John Jonchuck has been found guilty of first-degree murder for dropping his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe to her death off the Dick Misener bridge in St. Petersburg and will spend the rest of his life in prison.

A jury in Pinellas County reached the unanimous verdict after 14 days of testimony and six hours of deliberations. 

Jonchuck has been on trial for dropping his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe to her death off the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg. For two weeks, the jury heard testimony from law enforcement officers who investigated the case, doctors who examined Jonchuck’s mental health and Jonchuck’s family.

Jonchuck’s defense team tried to argue that he was insane when he dropped Phoebe off the bridge, but jurors ultimately decided that he knew what he was doing and that Phoebe’s death was premeditated.

After the verdict was read, Jonchuck hugged defense attorney Jessica Manuele as Judge Helinger spoke to the jury. Helinger thanked the 12 jurors for their time and their service on the case.

“I’ve never had a trial this long since I’ve been here and I’ve been here about 12 years as a judge,” Judge Helinger said.

Deputies escorted the jury out of the courtroom and out of the courthouse after Judge Helinger dismissed them. 

Once the jury was gone, Judge Helinger called Jonchuck to stand before her. Manuele joined him and requested sentencing be postponed. Judge Helinger denied that request and swiftly sentenced him to life in prison.

“Mr. Jonchuck, it’s an automatic life sentence – I’m sure you know that – on your conviction,” Judge Helinger told him. 

“Yes, your honor,” Jonchuck responded.

After exchanging a few more hugs with his defense attorneys, Jonchuck was escorted out of the courtroom one last time.

DAY 16 (Verdict Watch Day 2):

Verdict watch continues Tuesday in the John Jonchuck murder trial. The jury decided to go home Monday about two hours after they began deliberations to decide Jonchuck’s fate. They returned to court and began delibarating again Tuesday morning around 9 a.m.

There are several different outcomes the jury could reach in this case. 

Jonchuck could be found guilty of first-degree murder, which would indicate Phoebe’s death was premeditated. The jury could also find him guilty of second-degree murder, meaning her death was not premeditated. Jonchuck could also be found guilty of felony first-degree murder, which includes aggravated child abuse, or manslaughter.

Jonchuck could also be found not guilty, or not guilty by reason of insanity.

DAY 15 (Verdict Watch begins):

News Channel 8 is officially on verdict watch in the John Jonchuck murder trial. The jury began deliberations around 4:30 p.m. They decided to call it quits for the day before 7 p.m.

Before deliberations began, the jury heard closing arguments from state prosecutors and defense attorneys. 

Each side had two hours to deliver their arguments. The state split its time. 

State prosecutors began with their closing arguments. After the defense team delivered their closing arguments, state prosecutors had time to deliver a rebuttal.

After closing arguments wrapped, the judge read instructions to the jury and sent them to deliberate. The judge previously said jurors would be able to stay as long as they like or can choose to go home and come back Tuesday morning.

Deliberations are set to continue at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Editor’s note: If you have been following the trial and want to make sure you’re notified when a verdict comes in, please download the free WFLA News Channel 8 app. Make sure you have alerts turned on for live video, breaking news and top stories and you will get a push alert about the verdict.

DAY 14: 

The defense rested its case on Friday in the John Jonchuck murder trial. The judge scheduled closing arguments for Monday morning.

Before the defense rested, jurors heard from Heather Davis, a counselor at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center. Davis went over Jonchuck’s medications and said he was having hallucinations at the hospital that included seeing dinosaurs in the parking lot.

Davis also testified saying she heard Dr. Emily Lazarou say “she didn’t need to evaluate him to know he didn’t have a mental illness.” 

Dr. Michael Maher was also called back to the stand. He answered questions from the defense and the state before taking questions from the jury.

DAY 13:

Dr. Emily Lazarou was back on the stand Thursday morning to continue her testimony.

Defense attorney Jessica Manuele brought up concerns about how Dr. Lazarou was dressed during a taped interview with Jonchuck at a mental hospital. Judge Helinger responded swiftly to shut down the argument.

“Let me say this – a woman’s choice of attire, their hairstyle, all of that stuff I don’t think is really relevant to anything,” she said. “I’m not gonna let her be attacked for her dress.”

The jury went on to watch the taped interview between Dr. Lazarou and Jonchuck.

The defense continued trying to poke holes in Dr. Lazarou’s testimony throughout the day. They claim she wouldn’t let Jonchuck finish his statements or wouldn’t give him a chance to respond.

“He’s responding to the question that I’m asking but in very short answers,” Lazarou said. “That whole interaction there, that’s not how these interactions typically go.”

Attorneys also questioned Dr. Lazarou about her hours on the case, her qualifications and other defendants she’s interviewed who were deemed incompetent.

At one point while Manuele was questioning her about her qualifications, Dr. Lazarou became emotional and broke into tears on the stand. She says she was not allowed to take an exam at one point during her career because she was breastfeeding at the time.

“(You are) involved in a lawsuit in which you are suing the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, correct?” Manuele asked. 

Dr. Lazarou clarified that she is a named plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“What I was asking for was for them to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding women,” she said. “That was the reason for my complaint because they would not allow me to sit for the boards because they would not make an accommodation for me breastfeeding.” 

After being questioned by attorneys, Dr. Lazarou answered questions from the jury before being dismissed by the judge.

DAY 12 RECAP:

The defense fought to keep Dr. Emily Lazarou’s testimony out of court because they claim it’s changed since her deposition before trial. She doesn’t consider him to be mentally ill but says he has personality disorders.

Dr. Lazarou says Jonchuck is malingering psychotic symptoms, or exaggerating an illness he doesn’t have. She ruled out Jonchuck having bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. She also claims his delusions were out of character for a psychotic patient. 

The judge eventually decided to allow Dr. Lazarou to testify in front of the jury. 

Before her testimony in front of the jury began, there was some drama with the jurors. One juror said they heard two people that looked like lawyers making jokes about the judge’s appearance and Jonchuck’s last name in the lunchroom and said it was very unprofessional.

That juror then told a second juror about the comments. The second juror was brought in to be questioned. Eventually, all of the jurors were brought in because everyone knew about the conversation. The judge asked all of the jurors if the comments would impact their judgment on the trial. All of the jurors responded that it would not.

Dr. Lazarou is due back on the stand at 9 a.m. Thursday.

DAY 11 RECAP:

Dr. Peter Bursten testified for a second day on the stand in the John Jonchuck murder trial. On Tuesday, he went over the PCL-R – a psychopathy checklist used to determine Jonchuck’s mental state.

Bursten said Jonchuck fit a majority of the criteria and was experiencing various mental stages when he killed Phoebe in 2015.

“It would be easy to say all of those psychotic systems were present and therefore Mr. Jonchuck, because those symptoms were present, he had to be legally insane,” Bursten said. “Symptoms can be present but there are other variables present – again the presence of personality disorders, history of aggression, history of other anti-social types of behaviors.”

He described Jonchuck like a teapot – that his brain was starting to unravel.

“He believed, or he told myself and two other doctors that he had believed, he had engaged that behavior to save the world. He told one doctor he was God. Told me the devil was talking to him,” said Bursten.

Bursten testified that Jonchuck had a sense of what was going on while on the bridge with Phoebe and police.

“He knew what he was doing and I believe he was telling the police officer, I’m gonna do what I’m going to do. You have no free will, stop me,” said Dr. Bursten. “So, I’m seeing a pattern here of a guy right up to the murder who has some appreciation of legal boundaries and legality or the illegal aspect of this behavior.” 

Jurors will return Wednesday at 11 a.m. but attorneys will argue at 9 a.m.

DAY 10 RECAP: 

Things became pretty heated in the courtroom in day 10 of testimony in the John Jonchuck murder trial.

Jonchuck’s attorneys said allowing some of psychologist Dr. Peter Bursten’s testimony into court would paint a negative picture for the jurors. 

Bursten is the state’s rebuttal witness. He evaluated Jonchuck after the murder of Phoebe and also spoke to Jonchuck’s close friends and family.

Jonchuck’s attorneys went back and forth with Judge Chris Helinger about using words like psychopathy and psychotic features to discuss his mental state.

His defense also objected to Dr. Bursten telling a story about a time when Jonchuck was 17 years old and put slippery polish on the staircase, which caused his uncle to fall and injure himself. The uncle claimed it was intentional at the time.

“Fell down the stairs and broke his rib and his arm,” said Dr. Bursten.

“Was the defendant present for that? What was his reaction?” asked prosecutor Doug Ellis.

“He laughed when that occurred,” said Dr. Bursten.

Attorney Jessica Manuele said they wanted to redispose Dr. Bursten before trial resumed, but Judge Helinger wouldn’t allow it.

The doctor testified that Jonchuck had poor emotional control and his mother said when Jonnchuck doesn’t get his way, he acts out.

“She felt that Mr. Jonchuck was jealous of their relationship. She told me that right around that time, not that night, she said that Mr. Jonchuck said that everybody cares about the baby, no one cares about me,” said Dr. Bursten.

Defense moved for a mistrial. Judge Helinger denied it. 

A juror called out sick, therefore an alternate was assigned to the jury pool.

Court resumes Tuesday at 9 a.m.

DAY 8 RECAP:

After weeks of testimony, a juror had to be dismissed after the court learned he was no longer a Pinellas County resident. When the judge asked how he got his summons, the juror said it was sent in the mail to his new address in Trinity.

“I brought it too and I showed it to the lady at the jury assembly line and I said, ‘Should I go to Pasco?’ and she said, ‘No you’re here, this is the right number,'” the dismissed juror said.

Judge Helinger thanked the juror for his time but explained it could be a problem. 

“It probably would not be an issue, but if Mr. Jonchuck is convicted, that could be an appellate issue,” she explained.

Once court resumed, the defense played video of Jonchuck’s first appearance for jurors. The judge was trying to appoint him a public defender. In the video, Jonchuck says he wants to “leave it in the hands of God.”

“Okay, so you want to represent yourself,” asked the judge. Jonchuck repeated, “I want to leave it in the hands of God.”

One expert said Thursday that Jonchuck meets the criteria for insanity. Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Maher said, “he told me he remembered dropping Phoebe off the bridge. He remembered feeling that somehow, this would make her safe.”

The defense rested after that testimony. 

The prosecution then called their first rebuttal witness, paralegal Kyrstan Malcolm. After a few questions, Judge Chris Helinger sent the jurors home. 

Malcolm remained on the stand and continued to be questioned after jurors left. Jonchuck also left the courtroom.

Malcolm works for attorney Genevieve Torres. Jonchuck hired Torres to establish parental rights and discuss custody of Phoebe.

Court resumes at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

DAY 7 RECAP:

Dr. Richard Cipriano, performed another mental health examination on Jonchuck Wednesday morning in jail to check his competency.

Dr. Cipriano was called to the stand in the afternoon and said Jonchuck was competent to proceed with the trial. The judge then ruled Jonchuck competent and ordered the trial to continue.

Jurors then heard testimony from a doctor and a police sergeant. 

DAY 6 RECAP: 

Jonchuck’s attorneys brought up concerns Tuesday about his competency and whether or not he’s able to continue standing trial. His defense team said Jonchuck was hearing statements that were not made. 

“He also today has been displaying inappropriate laughter, which is a symptom that we have come to recognize sometimes when he does appear to be losing touch,” his attorney said.

Jonchuck insisted he was fine and not hallucinating but his attorneys said they were concerned.

Once the concerns were brought up, the judge ordered Jonchuck’s mental competency be examined by a doctor. 

Dr. Jill Poorman, a court psychologist for the circuit, evaluated his competency and ruled that Jonchuck is still competent to stand trial. 

After the doctor made her decision, the judge ended court for the day. She says a doctor will come and evaluate Jonchuck Tuesday night and give a report in the morning.

DAY 5 RECAP:

Michele Jonchuck, John’s mother, was called back to the stand Friday to testify. During her testimony, she said John was acting different in the days before Phoebe’s death. 

Michele testified that John called her the fallen angel, thought Phoebe was possessed and claimed drywall was making her sick.

She also said John was concerned that Phoebe’s mother was plotting to take her from him.

After Michele finished her testimony, the defense team called a forensic psychologist to the stand. Dr. Scot Machlus testified that Jonchuck was off certain medications days before the murder and was having delusions.

DAY 4 RECAP:

The defense team called attorney Genevieve Torres to the stand Thursday morning as their first witness. Jonchuck went to Torres to see about establishing paternity for Phoebe.

Torres testified that Jonchuck visited her office on Jan. 6, 2015 to discuss a petition and said he wanted custody of Phoebe. Torres said Jonchuck sounded normal and she saw no red flags. She even said she was impressed with how much information he had to give her. Torres said Jonchuck was very anxious to move forward with the paperwork.

After the initial meeting, Jonchuck said he would return on Jan. 7 to pay Torres.

The attorney said Jonchuck returned the next day dressed in pajamas and hoodie. He had Phoebe with him, as well as a large Swedish Bible.

Torres said the conversation turned strange when Jonchuck started to talk about the bible and asked her to read it to him.

Then he insisted that I read the bible to him and I said I can’t, it was in Swedish, I don’t speak Swedish, I can’t read his bible, I’m not going to John, she said. You are the creator, you speak all languages, you know how to speak Swedish and he wasn’t joking.

Torres said Jonchuck got frustrated when she refused him.

At one point when he got tired of me saying I was not going to read the bible and I was not God and he said then I must be God, Torres testified.

Torres said she felt uncomfortable and wanted to get Jonchuck out of the office and reminded him of his appointment with Father Bill at St. Paul Catholic Church to discuss baptisms.

She said Jonchuck begin to pack up. That’s when she asked him again about the paperwork.

He got this serious look on his face and he said ‘None of this is going to matter tomorrow,’ said Torres.

She said she became worried and called authorities once he left. Torres said she was in fear that maybe he would flee with Phoebe, but never got the impression he’d harm her.

Police found Jonchuck at the church as he was speaking with Father Bill Swengros.

After Torres’ testimony wrapped, the court took a brief recess before hearing from Father Bill. During his testimony, attorneys brought the Swedish Bible back out.

Father Bill said Jonchuck visited him and asked questions about the Bible and baptism. According to the testimony, Jonchuck got upset when Father Bill told him he couldn’t baptize him. Jonchuck then told Father Bill he would go somewhere else. Jonchuck never asked about baptism for Phoebe, Father Bill said.

DAY 3 RECAP:

The first witness called to the stand on day three of the trial was Dr. Christopher Wilson, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Phoebe.

After very brief testimony from the medical examiner, the judge asked for a recess and let the jury out of the courtroom so a legal issue could be taken care of. Once the jury was out of the room, the attorneys and judge discussed which photos of Phoebe can be shown during the trial to the jury.

After hearing arguments from both sides, the judge ruled only one photo of each injury Phoebe sustained will be admissible, as well as one photo of her face.

Dr. Wilson continued his testimony once the jury was back in the room. As autopsy photos of his daughter were shown to the jury, Jonchuck sat with his face in his hands and a tear in his eye.

State prosecutors rested their case against Jonchuck around 11:40 a.m. The judge ordered a brief 15-minute recess before the trial resumes.

The judge wrapped court for the day around 4 p.m. It will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.

DAY 2 RECAP:

On day two of the trial, the jury first heard testimony from three additional officers who were involved with the investigation into Phoebe’s death. During that testimony, jurors saw the large Swedish Bible that officers say Jonchuck had on him the night Phoebe died.

After that testimony concluded, prosecutors started showing video of Jonchuck in the interrogation room after being taken into custody back in 2015. Much of the interrogation room video shown so far features Jonchuck sitting by himself waiting to be questioned.

At one point, Jonchuck starts talking to the authorities in the room about a conspiracy and something bigger going on that’s beyond me, beyond everything.

It’s almost like I’m not being weird this is like a conspiracy. I went looking for answers, I’ve always had problems growing up like wondering who I was and what my purpose was, he said.

In the video, Jonchuck also talks about going to a church and speaking with Father Bill. Jonchuck told a detective in the room that the father said he wasn’t going to be ready this Easter but next Easter and that, I was the pope.

After almost an hour of being in the interrogation room, Jonchuck asks about his daughter.

 Is Phoebe OK? he asks the detective sitting with him.

The detective responds asking who Phoebe is. After a long pause with his head in his hand, Jonchuck responds, Phoebe was my daughter.

Judge Chris Helinger called the prosecutors and defense attorneys to her bench after watching about an hour of the interrogation room video. Judge Helinger decided to call for a lunch break, putting court in recess until 2 p.m.

When court resumed, the jury watched the rest of the interrogation room video before attorneys cross-examined a detective and a former Hillsborough County deputy. 

Jonchuck’s mother Michele then took the stand and got emotional talking about her granddaughter Phoebe, who she referred to as her princess angel.

Jonchuck’s mother was excused after giving testimony about swim lessons for Phoebe and who was caring for the girl.

Prosecutors then called Sgt. Kenny Miller to the stand. Miller was assigned as the lead detective on the case involving Phoebe’s death. While on the stand, Sgt. Miller described getting to the scene around 1:20 a.m. Jan. 8, 2015 and seeing crews searching for Phoebe.

Miller testified that the girl’s body was found just after 1:30 a.m.

The boats were coming in and I saw Phoebe come off one of the rescue boats and they were performing CPR on her, Miller said. She was wet, she had what looked like pajamas on. And she looked very pale.

Miller said he did not see any signs of life and did not see Phoebe breathing.

While Sgt. Miller remained on the stand, attorneys continued to show the video of Jonchuck in the interrogation room after being taken into custody. At one point, Jonchuck asks where the detective is who is supposed to question him. He then comments, I just want to go to bed, I don’t want to talk to anybody.

Shortly after Jonchuck makes that comment, the video shows Sgt. Miller walk into the interrogation room. He then begins questioning Jonchuck about what happened for about eight minutes.

DAY 1 RECAP:

On Monday, the jurors heard opening statements from prosecution and defense teams. 

The prosecution’s opening statement lasted more than an hour. During that time, attorney Paul Bolan walked the jury through the events that took place at the Dick Misener Bridge just after midnight on Jan. 8, 2015.

Bolan also addressed the defense’s argument that Jonchuck was insane at the time of his daughter’s death.

The defense will argue that the defendant was insane at the time that he committed this murder. And I want you to keep in mind that the defense has to establish that by clear and convincing evidence, he said. You’ve been read a jury instruction for insanity but I’m going to read it to you again because it’s important and we need to consider it. And we need to consider carefully what these words say. A person is considered to be insane when he had a mental infirmity, disease or defect. But the analysis does not stop there. Someone is not insane just because they have mental illness, just because there’s something wrong with them or they may say things that sound strange.

The defense team also walked through the events of the night of Phoebe’s death, talking about Jonchuck’s actions before, during and after his daughter’s death. Attorney Jessica Manuele did not deny that Jonchuck dropped his daughter off the bridge, but called it an act of insanity.

What happened just after midnight (that night) was tragic. That night, John Jonchuck Jr. took his daughter, whom he loved more than anybody in the world and dropped her over the side of the Dick Misener Bridge, Manuele said. It didn’t make sense at the time, it doesn’t make sense today. It will never make sense because it is insanity.

Manuele told jurors that Jonchuck got out of his car on the bridge holding a large Swedish Bible, then got his daughter Phoebe out and dropped her off the bridge. She argued that Jonchuck was calm and did not hurry away, despite a St. Petersburg police officer witnessing what happened.

The defense team also urged jurors to focus heavily on the evidence without letting emotion get in the way.

Nobody is disputing that what happened that night was tragic. But if you feel that your heartstrings are being intentionally tugged on, pay attention to that, she said. We have to focus on the evidence.

After opening statements wrapped up, two witnesses were called to the stand. The first was St. Petersburg Police Officer William Vickers. Vickers is the officer who was on the Dick Misener Bridge when Phoebe was dropped.

In his testimony, Officer Vickers talked about his actions after Phoebe was dropped. 

I was immediately concerned for the child. I advised radio of what had happened. I was shocked but my immediate concern was the health, welfare and safety of the child, he said.

Vickers also described hearing a faint scream and a splash after Phoebe was dropped from the bridge. The officer says he then climbed down a nearby service ladder to try and search for the child.

It was in the 40s, low 40s. The winds were gusting over 20 miles an hour. At a couple points, I was nearly blown off the bumper walkway area at the bottom of the bridge, he said, adding that the water was rough, dark and cold.

I continued to call until a fire rescue boat arrived in the area. At that point, I got on to assist in searching and coordinating between police and fire resources, Vickers said. I looked at my watch a couple of times thinking ‘we gotta find her, we gotta find her.’

The second witness called to the stand was a toll collector who gave a brief testimony about what he saw the night Phoebe died.

After the first two witnesses finished testifying, the judge ended court for the day and instructed jurors not to listen to, watch or talk about anything related to the trial.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION:

Jonchuck is accused of dropping his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe off the Dick Misener Bridge in January 2015. His murder trial was delayed several years but began in March after a jury of 12 was seated. 

Jonchuck was being treated at a mental health facility up until recently. The judge warned the jury that he is medicated and they must not let his present condition in court or side effects from the medications affect their decision-making process.

State prosecutors say they will not seek the death penalty in this case. If found guilty, Jonchuck could serve life in prison. If the jury finds him innocent, he’ll stay in a mental institution.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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