Crime

Before girl’s death on Tampa Bay bridge, a family in chaos

By age 5, Phoebe Jonchuck already had a significant history with Florida child protection authorities: Her father, they were told, was habitually violent with his 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.

A Tampa judge left to determine custody between them faced difficult choices.

The battle between John Nicholas Jonchuck and Michelle Kerr ended tragically early Thursday when Jonchuck tossed his 5-year-old daughter from a bridge approaching the iconic Sunshine Skyway, which spans Tampa Bay between St. Petersburg and Manatee County. Phoebe’s body was found by an Eckerd College dive team.

The report of Phoebe’s death to the state Department of Children & Families child abuse hotline was the sixth report the agency had received about the family in the past 2 1/2 years. Records of those contacts suggest little was done to ensure Phoebe’s safety since the first report was received at 9:51 p.m. on April 14, 2012.

Phoebe’s death is the most recent in a string of horrific — and often preventable — killings that prompted lawmakers to demand reform and greater transparency from the state’s chronically troubled child protection system.

As Jonchuck was booked into the Pinellas County Jail Thursday morning — he was arrested by police after he fled the scene of Phoebe’s killing — DCF Secretary Mike Carroll was speaking before a committee of Florida senators who last spring authored a bill that overhauled his agency’s child protection policies. Carroll praised a provision that required DCF to post all child fatalities on a website that went live last June, and said the agency had hired 90 of the 191 additional abuse investigators lawmakers had funded.

On Thursday night, Carroll told reporters he was deploying the so-called Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to Tampa “to assess the investigations and interventions with Phoebe’s family prior to her murder.” The team was developed as part of last spring’s legislative reform, enacted after publication of Innocents Lost, the Miami Herald’s series on 477 child deaths. The group sent to Tampa will be led by Assistant Secretary for Child Welfare Janice Thomas, Carroll said, and will include police, mental health providers and members of another group created by the Florida Institute of Child Welfare at Florida State University.

“After the tragic loss of Phoebe, the department is immediately changing our hotline criteria to include a trigger for when a caregiver is believed to be experiencing a psychotic episode that would require a department investigator to visit the family within four hours,” Carroll said. “We have to do more for the children, like Phoebe, who depend on us to protect them.”

“The horrible nature of this little girl’s murder at the hands of her father is heart-wrenching and demands our most immediate and thorough response,” Carroll added. “We must do everything we can at DCF to prevent any and all harm to precious children like Phoebe.”

Shortly after midnight, a St. Petersburg police officer saw Jonchuck’s white Chrysler PT Cruiser approaching the southbound span of the Skyway, speeding at about 100 miles per hour, police said. Jonchuck pulled over at the Dick Misener Bridge before getting on the Skyway. A patrolman pulled up behind him. The officer watched in horror as Jonchuck walked around to the passenger side of his car, pulled his daughter close to his chest as he babbled incoherently, and then flung her off the bridge.

Jonchuck was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault with a motor vehicle on a law enforcement, and aggravated fleeing. At his first appearance before a judge Thursday afternoon, Jonchuck said, “I want to leave it in the hands of God,” when asked whether he wanted a lawyer.

“I'm pretty sure God is not going to be representing you in this case,” the judge replied.

It appears from DCF records obtained by the Herald on Thursday night that DCF’s contact with Phoebe’s family on April 2012 was its first; in Tampa, all child protection probes are conducted by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office under contract with DCF.

The hotline call alleged that Jonchuck used “crystal meth,” had choked Phoebe’s mother, and had locked the then-toddler in a bedroom “where powerful pharmaceutical medication was located.”

At the time that report was received, unspecified extended family members already had been the subject of seven prior calls to DCF, beginning in 1997, and ending in 2012. Jonchuck already 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” at 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 described Jonchuck’s and Kerr’s behavior as “very erratic.”

Still, at the time investigators closed the case, they had concluded that the risk to Phoebe was “low” because Jonchuck and Kerr had moved to a new home and “the home was observed to be free and clear of any environmental hazards.” A local church was helping the couple.

“There were no concerns for the family,” a notation from April 19 of that year stated. Days earlier, a notation said that Jonchuck’s psychiatrist had told investigators Jonchuck had missed his domestic violence counseling appointment, and had failed to reschedule.

DCF received another call in 2013, alleging that Kerr had abused methamphetamine, cocaine and alcohol, had been “hostile” and had fallen down when drunk. The mother, the report said, was violent with Jonchuck, and had attacked him with a box cutter. “There is a problem with Phoebe not being bathed,” the report said, adding: “There are some concerns regarding the mother having adequate food in the home.”

And though the investigation was closed with verified findings that Phoebe was at some risk because of the ongoing violence between her parents, investigators took no actions on her behalf.

The hotline received another report last month saying that Jonchuck — who had custody of Phoebe — did not have “a stable home,” and was moving between relative and relative. The relatives, the report alleged, were “alcoholics.” Kerr, 29, continued to struggle with drug and mental health problems, reports said, and was living, once again, with a man who beat her up.

On Wednesday, DCF received its final report on Phoebe before her death. It came in at 2:45 p.m. and said that Jonchuck was “driving all over town in his pajamas” with Phoebe in the car. “The father seems depressed and delusional,” the report added.

Kerr, the report said, was “unstable,” and living with a violent boyfriend. Jonchuck was hiding his daughter both from her mom and her school.

The report apparently originated with a Tampa family court lawyer whom, reports said, Jonchuck had visited Wednesday as part of his dispute with Phoebe’s mom.

A record of the report does not indicate any action had been taken by Thursday morning, when Jonchuck’s odyssey ended near the Skyway bridge.

Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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