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01 October 2023

Dad threw 5-year-old off bridge


In an echo of a tragic Melbourne case, the US father of a five-year-old girl has been accused of pulling his daughter from the back seat of his car and throwing her off a Florida bridge into the bay about 18 metres below.

It wasn't clear why 25-year-old John Nicholas Jonchuck threw his daughter or whether she was alive at the time, though an officer who witnessed it said he "thought he heard the child scream", St Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway said at a news conference on Thursday.

For Australians, this case will resonate with the tragic death of Darcey Freeman, 4, in Melbourne in 2009, when her father, Arthur Phillip Freeman, threw her off the West Gate Bridge.

Police records said Jonchuck was separated from Phoebe's mother and the two had a rocky relationship, with Jonchuck trying to get a restraining order against her as recently as last month. Jonchuck had custody of Phoebe and they lived with his father in Tampa.

Phoebe's mother, Michelle Kerr, said she last saw her daughter and Jonchuck on Christmas Eve. They had a nice evening together and then he called child protective services on her and made false abuse allegations, she said.

"He does the Jekyll and Hyde. It's just something that goes on in his head, he just wasn't wired right," she said.

And yet, Kerr said that she never imagined Jonchuck would hurt Phoebe.

"I always saw him as a good dad. She would always say, 'I love you, daddy'. She loved her dad," Kerr said.

Both she and Jonchuck had several run-ins with authorities over domestic violence situations, according to documents.

On Thursday, just after midnight, police saw Jonchuck's Chrysler PT Cruiser speeding towards the Sunshine Skyway bridge at 160km/h. By the time an officer caught up with him, Jonchuck had pulled over.

Jonchuck got out and started toward the officer, who pulled his weapon. Then Jonchuck went around to the passenger side of his car and got Phoebe out from the back seat and tossed her over the railing.

Jonchuck faces first-degree murder charges. His first court hearing is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

Phoebe's body was recovered an hour and a half later about a 1.5km from the bridge. Rescue crews tried to revive her.

After throwing his daughter, officers said Jonchuck got back in the car and led police on a chase into a neighbouring county. At one point, he turned his car around and started driving towards officers. They eventually stopped him with traffic spikes.