"The man reached into the back seat and grabbed the girl,"a police spokesman tells PEOPLE. "Then he threw her over the railing and into the water"

By Steve Helling
Updated January 08, 2015 10:15 AM
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John Jonchuck
Pinellas County Jail/AP

An off-duty police officer was heading home from work early Thursday morning when he says he witnessed a horrific crime.

A white PT Cruiser sped past him, driving erratically at about 100 m.p.h. A brief chase ensued. The car stopped on the Dick Misener Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“The man reached into the back seat and grabbed the girl,” police spokesman Mike Puetz tells PEOPLE. “Then he threw her over the railing and into the water.”

The officer says he heard a splash as the girl fell 62 ft. into the water below. He radioed for help and climbed over the railing himself, hoping to rescue the child.

“He climbed down a ladder down one of the pylons,” says Puetz. “He couldn’t see her, because the current is extremely strong there.”

Searchers arrived on the scene almost immediately and asked two fishermen for their assistance.

“He said, ‘You know these waters – take me to where you think she’ll possibly be,’ ” Bobby Hay, one of the fishermen, later told reporters. “So we ran right over where the tide was going one way and the wind was breaking the opposite way. That’s where I thought she’d be. We weren’t far off.”

There, they made the grim discovery: 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck was still in the water. She wasn’t breathing. She was taken to a nearby hospital by an ambulance but did not survive.

A source in the Medical Examiner’s office tells PEOPLE that they will perform an autopsy Thursday to determine whether the girl drowned or was killed by the fall.

Meanwhile, other officers caught up with the man in the PT Cruiser. They arrested John Jonachuk, Phoebe’s biological father. He was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated fleeing and eluding, and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle on a law enforcement officer. His bond hearing is set for Thursday afternoon.

Police have not yet established a motive.

“You just can’t get inside someone’s head to know why they’d do that,” says Puetz. “It’s just tragic.”