Child found dead after being thrown off bridge; father arrested

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A 5-year-old girl is dead after St. Petersburg police say her father threw her from the approach leading to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge early Thursday morning.

It happened just after midnight on the Dick Misener Bridge. A St. Petersburg police officer was heading home southbound toward the Skyway Bridge when he said a Chrysler PT Cruiser passed him going about 100 mph.

Once he'd reached the top of the Misener Bridge and entered the approach to the Skyway, the officer said, the driver -- later identified as 25-year-old John Jonchuck -- had stopped his car and appeared to be waiting for him. 

According to the officer, Jonchuck said something to him, which he couldn't hear clearly, and then walked over to the passenger door, took his 5-year-old daughter into his arms, tucked her head toward his chest and threw her over the rail into the water.

St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway said Jonchuck then walked back to his car and just continued driving over the bridge.

Two officers were waiting for him on the other side. They said he sped toward them, almost hit one of them, then continued heading south in the northbound lanes. Manatee County authorities used spiked strips and disabled his car about 30 minutes later near the University Parkway exit.

In the meantime, the officer who witnessed the incident climbed down from the bridge in an effort to find the girl, identified as Phoebe Jonchuck.

Search crews from several agencies arrived to assist.

Two fishermen in the area told FOX 13 they were not far from the scene when it all went down. They approached the search parties, saw a flashlight coming from land, and were soon asked by a member of law enforcement if they would lend a hand in the search.

"He said, 'You know the waters; take me where you think she'll possibly be,'" recalled Bobby Hay, one of the fishermen. "So we ran right over where the tide was going one way, and the wind breaking the opposite way, where I thought she would be."

They received a call about 40 minutes later that the Eckerd College Search and Rescue crew had found Phoebe.

"We weren't far off," said Hay.

St. Pete police said Phoebe was taken to the hospital, but was pronounced dead. An arrest affidavit says the 5-year-old drowned in the 69-degree waters of Tampa Bay.

Phoebe was a kindergarten student at Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa. Students there were spending the day making drawings in memory of their classmate.

Meanwhile, police said John Jonchuck was uncooperative when he was taken into custody for questioning. He's since been arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated fleeing and alluding and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle on a law enforcement officer.

When asked if he needed a lawyer during his first court appearance Thursday afternoon, Jonchuck said he preferred to "leave it in the hands of God."

"I'm pretty sure God is not going to be representing you in this case," the judge replied, ordering Jonchuck held without bond.

Jonchuck had legal custody of his daughter, despite a criminal history that includes several domestic battery charges in Hillsborough County and a non-domestic battery charge in Pinellas.

Deputies in Hillsborough County confirmed that they had contact with Jonchuck yesterday, but said their report on that incident was not yet complete.

The investigation continues.