'He was definitely a Jekyll and Hyde,' says Phoebe's mother, Michelle Kerr

By Steve Helling
Updated January 13, 2015 11:10 AM
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John Jonchuck
Pinellas County Jail/AP

John Jonchuck had nothing to say.

The 25-year-old Florida man accused of throwing his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a Tampa Bay bridge, refused to answer questions in court on Monday –, and did not even answer direct questions.

Wearing gray prison clothes and flanked by two deputies, Jonchuck looked down throughout most of the hearing. When he sat in a chair, he cradled his head in his hands.

Circuit judge Michael Andrews appointed a public defender to take Jonchuck’s case. During a hearing last Thursday, Jonchuck declined a lawyer, saying he wanted to leave his fate “in the hands of God.”

‘We Know What Happened. We Need to Find Out Why

Just hours before Jonchuck allegedly threw his daughter 62 feet to her death, police had questioned Jonchuck for acting erratically. Jonchuck’s attorney had called 911 when she noticed he had been acting strangely.

But police were not the only ones who had heard about Jonchuck’s behavior in the hours before Phoebe’s death. On Wednesday, the Department of Children and Families hotline received a call voicing concerns that Jonchuck was unstable. At the time, Phoebe was visiting her grandparents. DCF placed a notation about the call in a file for a caseworker to handle at a later date.

That later date never came. Fewer than 12 hours after that DCF call, Phoebe was dead.

“It’s horrifying,” DCF Secretary Mike Carroll said in a press conference Monday. “We can’t imagine the terror that little girl must have felt in the last moments of her life.”

Carroll deployed a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team to examine what, exactly, went wrong. “My question is why this happened,” Caroll said. “We know what happened. We need to find out why.”

‘Never Did I Think He’d Do This’

Also looking for answers: Phoebe’s devastated mother, Michelle Kerr.

In an interview with WFTS, Kerr explained that she allowed Phoebe to live with her father because she was unable to care for the girl. (Kerr suffers from multiple sclerosis.)

Despite Jonchuck’s history of domestic violence, Kerr, 29, thought he was a safe guardian for Phoebe. “Never did I think he’d do this,” she said. “I thought it was for the best.”

Still, Kerr acknowledges that she knew that Jonchuck suffered from bipolar disorder and would occasionally go off his meds. “He was definitely a Jekyll and Hyde,” she told the station. “He was a demon, I felt, like a devil.”

With Phoebe gone, Kerr is left grappling with her grief. “She really is now an angel,” Kerr says. “I would do anything just to have her for one more day.”