Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Falling through the cracks

The Bridge

Written by Robert A. Waters

Since it was built 40 years ago, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge connecting St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida has been a harbinger of tragedy. The four-mile-long bridge rises like a mastodon 430 feet into the bright sunlight. On or around the bridge, there have been hundreds of suicides, as well as deadly shipwrecks. And in 2016, there was the heinous murder of a child let down by the very system designed to protect her.

Phoebe Jonchuck lived for five years in obvious danger from her psycho father, yet few steps were taken to safeguard her. Somehow John Jonchuck kept custody of his daughter for those years. Along the way, many citizens reported odd, violent, and threatening encounters with him, but Florida's Department of Family and Children did nothing...

...Then, on a night when strong winds shook cars crossing the Dick Misener Bridge, Phoebe's father stopped his white PT Cruiser and stepped out into the swirling rain. William Vickers, an off-duty police officer who had spotted Jonchuck racing through the night at 100 miles per hour, pulled in behind him. Jonchuck emerged, holding Phoebe. Ignoring Vickers, her father peered into the water below. By now, the cop had drawn his gun and later testified he "felt fear," both for himself and the child. He ordered Jonchuck to put her down. But the disturbed father mumbled several unintelligible phrases, then looked at Vickers and said, "You have no free will." As Vickers looked on in horror, Jonchuck casually tossed Phoebe over the railing.

She fell 62 feet, her screams echoing into the darkness.

The Misener Bridge is part of a four-mile-long span called the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that connects St. Petersburg to Tampa. The "Skyway," as it's called by locals, has a dark history of deadly accidents, suicides, and murder. Nearly 400 people have died after jumping from its acrophobic heights. A United States Coast Guard cutter sank just beneath the bridge during a violent thunderstorm, drowning 24 guardsmen. A year later, during yet another storm, the MV Summit Venture, a ship from Texas, slammed into the pilings beneath the bridge, knocking away a portion of roadway. A Greyhound bus plunged into the depths below, killing everyone on board. Several cars plummeted down, also sinking into the murky water. In all, 35 souls lost their lives in that catastrophe.

Phoebe Jonchuck lived her whole life in the shadow of that bridge. After her murder, a Hillsborough County Child Fatality inquiry summarized that "at her time of the death incident, Phoebe resided with her father (the custodial parent), and she occasionally visited with her mother, Michelle Kerr-29. The death occurred during an open investigation regarding concerns for the mother's ability to meet Phoebe's needs when the child would visit."

As happens so often in these kinds of cases, heavy drug use seemed rampant among most, if not all, the adults in Phoebe's life. During her five years, the child lived in at least fifteen different residences, and, with her father, was homeless for a period of time. Abrupt moves, violent encounters, and the ravings of a madman provided no safe haven for Phoebe. John, who rarely worked, hated his ex-partner. On the day of the crime, he had been attempting to keep Kerr from maintaining visitation rights.

Carol Marbin Miller of the Miami Herald wrote: "By age 5, Phoebe Jonchuck already had a significant history with child protection authorities: Her father, they were told, was habitually violent with domestic partners, and had been accused of 'smacking' his daughter in the face. Phoebe's mother, according to reports to the agency, was a meth user who had been charged with cruelty to another child in 2008." Six times in the past two-and-a-half years, the Department of Children and Family had received calls about possible abuse of the child.

Although John sometimes gave appearances of being a loving father, his life was riddled with turmoil, almost all caused by him. Phoebe told at least one acquaintance that she was afraid of her father. Her grandparents sometimes kept the girl, but according to newspaper reports, seemed terrified of their son. The Herald reported that Jonchuck had an arrest history "that included aggravated assault with a weapon, 'multiple charges' of domestic battery, and larceny. Kerr, the girl's mother, had been charged with child abuse. A former landlord told an investigator he'd found 'drug paraphernalia' in the couple's home, had found doors 'kicked in' on several occasions, and had been forced to replace windows that had been smashed in by the couple." He told investigators that Jonchuck and Kerr's behavior was extremely erratic.

Family members informed reporters that Jonchuck had been involuntarily committed to mental health facilities a staggering 27 times. On each occasion, he was released and Phoebe was sent back to live with him.

On July 10, 2016, the day Phoebe died, John went to see his court-appointed attorney, Genevieve Torres. Phoebe, dressed in a pink dress and blue jacket, tagged along. John wore pajamas and carried a huge antique Bible written in a foreign language. Torres stated that Jonchuck called her "St. Genevieve," the "Creator," and "God." He insisted that she read the "Swedish" Bible he had brought. Recognizing Jonchuck's mental instability, she quickly got rid of him. As he was leaving, Jonchuck commented, "None of this is going to matter tomorrow anyway."

As soon as Jonchuck left, Torres phoned a child endangerment hotline, warning the operator that Jonchuck was deranged and taking his daughter with him while he was having an episode. The Florida Times Union reported that "Torres also told the operator, who was inexperienced, that the [Department of Family and Children] had an open investigation after an earlier caller accused Jonchuck of violence, substance abuse, and inadequate supervision." Torres also informed the operator that Jonchuck kept calling her office every five minutes. She stated "he's out of control." The operator refused to report the call to authorities.

Later that night, Phoebe was dead. An autopsy revealed that she had died of a combination of hypothermia and drowning.

She'd been enrolled in kindergarten. Her teachers stated she was good-natured and smart. She loved to sing and the color purple. Attentive, curious, and sensitive, her grandparents enjoyed keeping her, as long as Jonchuck wasn't there. 

After he was arrested, Jonchuck spent four years in a mental hospital, having been found incompetent to stand trial. In 2019, he was finally adjudged sane enough to be tried. Jurors turned down his insanity defense and found him guilty of first-degree murder. Jonchuck received a life sentence with no chance of parole.

Phoebe was failed by both Florida's mental health system and child protective services. Her father was an obvious danger to anyone around him, particularly his daughter. How he could maintain custody of Phoebe with his mental deficiencies, law enforcement issues, and drug usage baffles my mind.