Tampa Bay Times reporter Zack Sampson’s dawn tweet on Jan. 8, 2015, read like a gut punch: “A 5-year-old girl died last night in Tampa Bay. Police say her father threw her into the water from an approach to the Skyway. More to come.”
The story of Phoebe Jonchuck’s death unfolded quickly that morning. A police officer had witnessed the whole thing. Before 5:30 a.m., John Jonchuck walked barefoot, in a white jumpsuit, to face charges of murder, assault, fleeing and eluding. The student search and rescue team at Eckerd College discovered Phoebe’s body in the water east of the Dick Misener Bridge. By evening, Mike Carroll, then secretary of the Department of Children and Families, had called for a special investigation of the agency’s handling of the case.
On Monday, Jonchuck goes on trial in the death of his daughter. If convicted of first-degree murder, he faces life in prison.
Key players expect a lengthy trial, maybe even a month long.
The Times will be following it closely, with Sampson, Josh Solomon, Lane DeGregory and Scott Keeler in the Clearwater courtroom. We plan to livestream the trial on tampabay.com and publish daily live blogs chronicling witness testimony and courtroom developments. Follow along at tampabay.com/jonchuck and share your questions in the comments. We’ll answer as we go.
Why so much focus on this trial?
First, because of that January morning. We’ve reported too many times on parents who have killed their children, but Phoebe’s death — so public and so heinous — rattled our region and drew national attention.
Four years later, we’re still looking for answers.
From what we know, many people had many chances to save Phoebe. But the one person who was supposed to love her the most, who held her life in his hands, let her go. Why?
That’s the second part.
We should hear from witnesses that we’ve never heard from before. The priests Jonchuck and his daughter visited before her death. Other family members. Other evidence.
Maybe some unknowns will be resolved.
Here are four things we want to learn from the Jonchuck trial:
1. How can a man be arrested six times for domestic violence, and have the Department of Children and Families called on him multiple times over the years, and still have custody of his young daughter?
2. Why didn’t the priests or the Department of Children and Families caseworker or sheriff’s deputies think Jonchuck was a danger that last day? He was begging for an exorcism, saying he was God, dragging Phoebe around.
3. Where was he going that night? Some friends said he was looking to buy drugs. His mother thought he was going to kill Phoebe’s mom. But why would he take Phoebe with him?
4. Why didn’t anyone drug test Jonchuck that night? Friends said he frequently used meth and spice, and that often set him into a rage. He was acting strangely after his arrest but was never drug tested.
Jonchuck’s defense team will argue he cannot be convicted because he was insane when he killed Phoebe. Doctors will testify to what was going on in his mind.
Ultimately, jurors will decide.
Through it all, we’ll be there, giving you a front-row seat to make your own judgment.
Contact Amy Hollyfield at [email protected] Follow @amy_hollyfield.