By Letitia Stein
A Florida man with a troubled past was charged with murder after throwing his 5-year-old daughter over a bridge into Tampa Bay on Thursday, just hours after police questioned his bizarre behavior but found no grounds to detain him, authorities said.
John Jonchuck, 25, had custody of his daughter despite a lengthy arrest history involving his turbulent relationship with the child’s mother.
Police gave no motive for the grim episode they said played out just after midnight, when Jonchuck sped past an officer at 100 miles per hour (160 km per hour) and headed toward the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay.
He stopped his car near the top of an approach to the bridge, appearing to wait for the officer, then removed daughter Phoebe Jonchuck from the vehicle, police said.
He threw her over the bridge railing and drove off at a normal speed as the officer began searching for the child in the waters some 60 feet (18 metres) below, St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said.
While it was not immediately clear if the kindergarten student was alive when thrown, an off-duty officer who witnessed the incident thought he heard her scream, Holloway said.
“You just throw this baby away like it’s nothing,” the chief said at a news conference.
Phoebe Jonchuck’s body was found in the water about an hour and a half later, police said. Her empty pink car seat was sitting in the back of her father’s car when authorities stopped him in nearby Manatee County.
On Wednesday, a Tampa attorney representing Jonchuck in a custody case had called police to report concerns about his behavior. She said he had called her “God” and asked her to translate a Bible that was written in Swedish, according to a police report.
Deputies located Jonchuck at a Tampa church and found him “clean shaven,” dressed in pajama bottoms and a long-sleeve black shirt, according to a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office report.
Jonchuck told them at one point he was taking 37 medications for an health condition that was redacted from the report, but that he no longer was on prescription drugs.
“He doesn’t want to hurt himself or anyone else,” officers wrote.
Finding no grounds to detain Jonchuck, officers noted that his daughter “appeared happy” walking with her father and waved as they left.
Jonchuck was arrested multiple times in recent years on charges including domestic violence and battery, according to Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies and the Tampa Police Department.
He had a troubled history with the girl’s mother, Michelle Kerr, police reports show.
Kerr told local ABC Action News that she has multiple sclerosis and allowed the child to live with Jonchuck, whom she described as a good father.
“Never did I think he’d do this,” she said, the television station reported.
Jonchuck, who lived with his parents and had custody of the child, may have mental issues, Holloway said.
Now facing charges of first-degree murder, aggravated fleeing and eluding, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on a law enforcement officer, a judge on Thursday ordered Jonchuck to be held without bail.
Asked by the judge if he wanted to be appointed a lawyer, Jonchuck declined.
“I want to leave it in the hands of God,” he said.