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TAMPA — Many mourners at Wednesday’s funeral for a 5-year-old whose father is accused of throwing her from a bridge into Tampa Bay scrapped somber attire and wore the colors of the rainbow with zebra-striped purple ribbons pinned to their chests in her memory.
Phoebe Jonchuck died Thursday after a St. Petersburg police officer saw her father, John Jonchuck Jr., 25, of Tampa drop her from the Dick Misener Bridge on the approach to the Sunshine Skyway at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Police said they believe Phoebe was alive at the time she was hurled about 60 feet off the bridge south of St. Petersburg but drowned in the water below.
“She was my world. We loved her,” her grandmother Michele Jonchuck said after the service. “There’s not enough words in the world to describe how much this child brought so much happiness to this family.”
Phoebe’s body was found hours after the incident about a mile away.
“She liked to be helpful to the other children in her school,” Michele Jonchuck said. Phoebe’s teachers and the principal at Cleveland Elementary School, where Phoebe had been a student, visited with family for 2½ hours Friday. They told Phoebe’s relatives that the children there have been bringing her flowers and cards and saying hello to her in the morning and goodbye to her in the afternoon.
One child did not talk much, but was Phoebe’s friend, her grandmother said.
“She missed Phoebe so much that she wrote a song and actually sung it,” Michele Jonchuck said Phoebe’s teachers told her.
The final incident that led to Phoebe’s death began shortly after midnight Thursday when a police officer began following John Jonchuck after the he drove past the officer at an estimated 100 mph. John Jonchuck had been acting erratically at other times that day, alarming his lawyer enough that she called authorities and going to a priest with his daughter asking to be baptized immediately.
As the officer approached John Jonchuck’s car, John Jonchuck stopped on the bridge ahead, began yelling at the officer, retrieved his daughter from the passenger side of the car and tossed the child over the railing. John Jonchuck then drove away.
He later was arrested on first-degree murder charges, reckless driving, aggravated fleeing and eluding, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on a law-enforcement officer.
“Obviously, there had to be something that snapped,” said his mother, Michele Jonchuck. She said Phoebe lived with her until July. “He adored this child. … We never, ever thought this could happen because he adored her.”
At least one mourner was led out of the funeral when he could not contain his anger at Phoebe’s death.
John Jonchuck was denied bond Monday and remains in Pinellas County jail in Clearwater, Fla. He has spoken with a court-appointed psychologist, but the results of his court-ordered mental-health evaluation are not public.
Four days after John Jonchuck’s initial court appearance where he said he wanted to leave his fate “in the hands of God,” the judge assigned John Jonchuck a lawyer.
Phoebe’s mother, Michelle Kerr, told the Tampa Bay Times that Jonchuck often was unpredictable and took psychiatric medications such as Seroquel and Zoloft.
“He was very, very bipolar,” she said. “He was Jekyll and Hyde all the way.”
On several occasions Kerr had called Tampa police to accuse Phoebe’s father of domestic violence.
John Jonchuck’s lawyer not only had called the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to warn them about his mental state about 12 hours before the bridge incident, but she also later called Florida’s child protection hot line.
Deputies met with John Jonchuck and Phoebe at St. Paul Catholic Church in Tampa, where he had gone in his quest for baptism, but found no reason to take the girl from him. Child protective investigators also decided not to intervene.
Since Phoebe’s death, the state Department of Children and Families has changed its hot line protocol to require a visit from a child protective investigator within four hours if a caregiver seems to be experiencing a psychotic episode.
Phoebe’s family is asking that those who want to donate money in her name send it to Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa.
“Phoebe would be very happy if her friends and classmates benefited from her loss,” said her uncle, Bryan Morris. “When bad things happen, good people come out.”
At least one mourner has proposed renaming the span where Phoebe plunged to her death in honor of the 5-year-old and “the children left behind still in danger.” As of Wednesday evening, a petition to be delivered to the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott had about 1,300 signatures.
“Let’s allow something GREAT to come out of such a devastating horrible crime,” Delores Trott of Oldsmar, Fla., wrote in signing the MoveOn.org petition. “Phoebe deserves this much.”
The bridge now is named after Dick Misener, a marina builder and philanthropist who died in 1987 at age 70, according to The Tampa Tribune.
Contributing: Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY; The Associated Press.