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Dad accused of tossing girl off bridge was 'out of his mind' before incident

ST. PETERSBURG -- Just 12 hours before police said John Jonchuck threw his 5-year-old daughter off a bridge -- perhaps while she was still alive -- the father calmly told a sheriff's deputy he didn't want to hurt himself or his little girl and had "new clarity in his life."

The officer had made a point of interviewing Jonchuck in person because Jonchuck's own attorney frantically called 911 to report he was acting "strange." The attorney, Genevieve Torres, said Jonchuck had called her "God" and asked her to translate a Bible in Swedish when they met Wednesday to talk about Jonchuck's custody case for his daughter, Phoebe.

Yet, when police talked to Jonchuck at length, everything appeared OK.

Then police encountered Jonchuck again shortly after midnight Wednesday. He was driving about 100 mph toward the Sunshine Skyway bridge. By the time an officer caught up with him, Jonchuck had pulled over on the approach span to the bridge.

Jonchuck got out, and started toward the officer, who

pulled his weapon. Jonchuck grabbed Phoebe from the back seat and "held her face to his chest" as he carried her to the railing, St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway said.

It wasn't clear whether Phoebe was alive when Jonchuck threw her into Tampa Bay about 60 feet below, though the officer said he "thought he heard the child scream," Holloway said.

Phoebe's body was recovered about a mile from the bridge about two hours later. An autopsy and cause of death is pending.

Friends and family gathered at 9 p.m. Thursday to remember the 5-year-old with a vigil at Maximo Park. Phoebe's mother, Michelle Kerr, said she last saw her daughter Christmas Eve.

She said it was an unusually peaceful and fun visit that included John. At that time, John told her she could see their daughter any time she wanted. Just a few days later, however, she started receiving strange texts from him.

"He told me that he was seeing a priest and that he had found Jesus," she said. "He told me I could never see my daughter again."

Kerr woke up around 2:30 a.m. Thursday to a knock on her door. A police officer stood in the doorway, with news her daughter was dead.

"I collapsed into her arms," said Kerr. "I fell down. How could he do this?"

Kerr did not have custody of her daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, she said. Kerr said she and John Jonchuck fought constantly over their daughter -- sometimes violently.

"He hit me over the head with a cinderblock once," said Kerr. "He almost killed me."

Kerr said John was bipolar and his anger could be quick and explosive. She wonders if he might have killed Phoebe before throwing her over the bridge.

Melody Dishman took Phoebe trick-or-treating this year. Phoebe dressed up as a butterfly.

"She's a lovely little girl, energetic, blonde hair, blue eyes, happy go lucky, always wanting to play," said Dishman.

Dishman said Jonchuck would yell at his daughter, but never harmed her physically. She said Jonchuck was a drug addict.

"Really bad on spice and on meth," Dishman said. "I don't know if he still was, but he had to be on something to hurt that little girl."

Two days ago, Dishman called Tampa police to report strange and harrassing text messages she recieved from Jonchuck.

"He kept saying go away demon, accept Christ as your Lord and Savior," Dishman said. "He must have been really messed up in mind to keep calling me a demon."

The Florida Department of Children and Families said late Thursday the agency received a call to the abuse hotline at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday "regarding the mental health of Phoebe's father." The anonymous caller said Jonchuck was "depressed and delusional."

Secretary Mike Carroll said a team is reviewing the agency's involvement with the family, which included at least three prior investigations.

Before her death, Jonchuck and Phoebe had an odd encounter with his attorney. Torres told the 911 dispatcher she had asked Jonchuck if he wanted her to file paperwork in his custody case. "It's not going to matter anymore," she recalled him saying.

"That really scared me," Torres told the dispatcher, her voice trembling. He was "out of his mind."

Police found him a short time later at a church, and everything seemed fine. He told officers he was once on 37 different medicines for a variety of ailments, but none this week. He said he had recently lost weight and was eating healthy, "trying to better his life."

The church's priest told a deputy that Jonchuck had made the statement "I am the Pope," only to then say: "I know I am not."

Officers decided they didn't have enough evidence to commit Jonchuck.

"She was smiling and appeared healthy, properly clothed and happy," an officer wrote of the little girl.

Phoebe had long, curly hair, a wide smile and loved princesses. She hated baths and water, making her death even more gut-wrenching.

Phoebe's mother was with Jonchuck for six tumultuous years, and police were called numerous times. Since 2008, Jonchuck has been charged with domestic battery six times, but in every case, the charges were dropped or never pursued.

Kerr had an arrest record consisting of child neglect, petty theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, among other charges.

Jonchuck reportedly had custody of Phoebe, and they lived with Jonchuck's parents in Tampa.

"I always saw him as a good dad," Kerr said. "She would always say, 'I love you daddy.' She loved her dad."

Jonchuck was charged with first-degree murder. At his first court hearing, Pinellas County Judge Michael Andrews asked him if he wanted an attorney.

"I want to leave it in the hands of God," Jonchuck said.

The judge responded: "I'm pretty sure God's not going to be representing you in this case. You're going to be standing trial."

Linda Mattos, the owner of a daycare that looked after Phoebe, said Jonchuck and Phoebe were homeless in 2013. Jonchuck had a back injury from a fall at a restaurant and didn't work, so Mattos allowed them to stay at her house for about six months, until Jonchuck started to pick fights with her.

When she asked him to leave, he tried to get revenge, Mattos said, by calling child protective services.

"He was very revengeful," she said. "He tried to ruin me."

It was a claim Kerr echoed.

She said she last saw her daughter and Jonchuck on Christmas Eve. They had a nice evening together, and then he called child protective services on her and made false abuse allegations, she said.

"He does the Jekyll and Hyde. It's just something that goes on in his head. He just wasn't wired right," she said.

-- BayNews9 and AP Researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report.

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