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The Long Fall
of Phoebe Jonchuck

Chapter 1

The good father

Click here to read this story in Spanish.

TAMPA — On the night Phoebe’s dad scooped her from her bed, the moon was high outside her window. The house was quiet. He carried her out the door, into the dark.

It was blustery and cold, especially for Florida. He didn’t zip her into a jacket or wrap her in a blanket. All the 5-year-old had on were shorts and her green cat T-shirt.

Her dad was tall and thick, with wild hair, wearing a hoodie and plaid pajama bottoms. He eased Phoebe into the back of his PT Cruiser and strapped her into her pink booster seat.

Down the highway they raced, crossing Tampa Bay, reaching 80, 90, 100 mph.

In St. Petersburg, a police car pulled behind and followed, lights off. At the crest of the span leading to the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the PT Cruiser stopped, and Phoebe’s dad got out.

“Get back in the car!” the cop yelled. “Let me see your hands!”

Phoebe’s dad walked between the cars and shouted at the officer, “You have no free will!”

Then he went around to her door, opened it and bent inside. He lifted her out and carried her to the edge of the bridge.

Salt spray stung her skin. The wind whipped her bare legs. Her cheek rested on his sweatshirt as he cradled her against his chest.

Phoebe’s dad held her out over the guardrail, six stories above the black waves.

And let go.

The Dick Misener Bridge leads to the northern toll booths of the Sunshine Skyway. Here, at the top of the span, on a frigid January night, a police officer watched in horror as John Jonchuck Jr. dropped his daughter over the rail. Phoebe, who was 5, fell six stories into the black waves of Tampa Bay.

That was a year ago, in the first minutes of Jan. 8, 2015.

John Nicholas Jonchuck Jr. , 26, is in a state mental institution. Psychiatrists say he is not fit to stand trial.

John Jonchuck Jr.
  John Jonchuck Jr., 26

Phoebe’s father. A sporadically employed telemarketer, he had a history of arrests for DUI and domestic violence. Friends say he was a heavy drug user. His family says he was committed 27 times.

He must be crazy to have killed his own child. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

But few who knew him believe it.

Family and friends say he’s a con artist. A manipulative, vindictive, violent man who alienated people who cared about him. Who forged checks and faked falls and believed in demons, but not in God.

He was a schemer who used the courts for profit and revenge. He was a paranoid, angry meth addict who had been arrested for battery and domestic violence seven times. He had been involuntarily committed, by his family’s count, 27 times.

And yet, in its report on Phoebe’s death, the Florida Department of Children and Families concluded, “There was nothing in the preceding several years that could have reasonably been interpreted as predictive of such an event.”

Phoebe Jade Jonchuck
  Phoebe Jade Jonchuck, 5

She adored her daddy, who killed her.

It’s true, no one imagined John Jonchuck Jr. would murder his daughter. He was a good father, friends said, who taught Phoebe  how to count trees, painted her tiny toenails pink and loved sharing Slurpees that stained their lips blue. She was the light in his dark, stoned eyes.

But whether he was crazy or conniving, plenty of people believed John would hurt someone. Most likely his mom, whom he hated. Or Phoebe’s mother, whom he still loved.

Phoebe clung to her dad as he drifted from address to address. She slipped through one safety net after another:

Her family, who knew how violent John could be.

The state, which had known about John since he was 5.

The dozen people who saw him that last day, holding her hand, ranting about exorcism and an ominous, biblical plan.

So many people could have stopped him. No one did.

Watch: John’s family and friends talk about his life and Phoebe’s death.


Go looking for answers about John Jonchuck, and you’ll find scores of people who were fed up. You’ll read police reports spanning generations: theft, drugs, domestic violence. You’ll comb through court cases, listen to calls to the child protection hotline, uncover a lifetime of lies, rage and revenge.

You’ll meet people who were too numb to recognize the danger or too scared to stand up to his temper. People who wonder what clues they missed or ignored.

From the beginning, there were so many signs.

He was a child who kicked the dog, stuck screwdrivers into electrical outlets, got thrown out of a dozen preschools.

Bryan Morris
  Bryan Morris, 51

MawMaw's brother, John's uncle and Phoebe's great-uncle. He runs a commercial roofing company, helped raise John and wanted to adopt Phoebe.

“He was a monster,” said his uncle, Bryan Morris , 51.

“Born evil,” said Tim Maynard , 55, Bryan’s partner for more than two decades.

John’s father, John Jonchuck Sr. , was a hard-drinking construction worker who got arrested for beating John’s mom and lost his license after too many DUIs. He moved away when John was 3.

John’s mother worked at Dunkin’ Donuts, got caught stealing and with cocaine. She left John when he was 5.

Uncle Bryan and Uncle Tim took in the boy. They gave him a gold necklace with a tiny cross.

Tim Maynard
  Tim Maynard, 55

Bryan’s business and domestic partner of 25 years.

When John threw fits, a counselor suggested wrapping him in a sheet like a straitjacket. Tim tried. “He stomped my feet until he destroyed my new Bass loafers.”

They paid for a psychiatrist, who prescribed Ritalin and Adderall. Neither seemed to help.

Then, one day, John’s dad showed up, yelling, “I’m not going to let two fags raise my child!”

“Which was fine with us fags,” said Tim. “We were done with him.”

John was 12 the first time cops folded him into the back of a police car.

He was still living with his dad and stepmom in a duplex by a Tampa scrapyard.

John Jonchuck Sr.
  John Jonchuck Sr., 58

John's father, Phoebe's grandfather. A construction worker, he raised John from the age of 5. He was arrested for domestic battery against John's mother. He lost his driver’s license after too many DUIs.

Child protection officers visited his dad four times. Those reports are long closed. John’s friends saw bruises on his face, which he tried to hide with sunglasses.

Tampa police records show that on May 15, 2002, John’s dad told him to clean his room.

“And he went off! Attacked me with full soda cans, pulled my hair,” his dad told police. “Then he grabbed a one-foot knife and ran out.”

John admitted making a motion to stab his dad with the butcher knife. He said his dad was hitting him.

Hates his dad, wrote the officer. Hopes he goes to hell.

The police report concludes: No treatment necessary.

John’s first arrest was at age 12, when he threw soda cans at his dad and pulled a knife on him. He told Tampa police his dad had been hitting him.Tampa Police Department

At Pierce Middle School in Tampa, John was the loudest, funniest, smartest — the only guy who could grow a mustache.

He was a great actor, his classmates said, who made puppets and performed plays in the cafeteria.

Amanda Serrano
  Amanda Serrano, 26

She met John in middle school, and in 2014, let him and Phoebe move in with her family.

“He never wanted to be at home,” said Amanda Serrano , 26, who has known John since sixth grade. “So he’d come over to my house a lot.”

In eighth grade, John told everyone he was gay. People made fun of him, but he seemed to like the attention.

He dropped out of high school the next year and, soon after, climbed onto the roof of his dad’s duplex and slit his wrist with a knife.

His family committed him. That was the first time.

When John got out of the hospital, Bryan and Tim took him in again.

He was taking online classes, earning his GED. But one night, when John was supposed to be studying, his uncles caught him playing a video game on his computer. They tried to take the laptop. John hurled it over a balcony, smashing it to bits.

Another time, when John was mad at Tim, he coated the wooden staircase with thick wax. When Tim headed downstairs, he tumbled to the bottom and broke three ribs.

John watched. And laughed.

He moved out at 17. Started smoking spice, then crystal meth.

“He started working at a strip club,” said Amanda. “He made a lot of money doing stuff with older guys.”

John never got arrested for drugs. But every few hours, he had to get high. Amanda and five others described his favorite buzz — from a brand of synthetic marijuana called WTF, which gas stations sold in shiny $20 packages. Cheaper and stronger than pot, spice has been linked to bizarre violence: Two Michigan men beat a family with baseball bats. A Texas man strangled and ate a spaniel. Other users screamed they were possessed or being chased by demons.

When John smoked it, the spice sometimes helped him relax. Other times, it made him mean.

Crystal methamphetamine also makes people paranoid and violent. John smoked meth so often, his fingertips were charred from holding the little glass pipe.

John and Michelle on Jonchuck's inactive Facebook page under "John Somethingrather."Facebook

John was high when he met Michelle Kerr . A friend introduced them when he was 18. He couldn’t stop staring.

“You’re so beautiful,” he told her. Again and again.

A buxom woman with blond hair, freckles and wide blue eyes, Michelle was 23. She had a young son and daughter.

Michelle Kerr
  Michelle Kerr, 30

Phoebe's mother. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis right after Phoebe was born. Her arrest history includes child neglect, after a babysitter failed to meet her son at his bus stop, as well as charges for shoplifting and forgery. She has been involuntarily committed. She is raising a teenage son. A second daughter lives with relatives.

John and Michelle sang Avril Lavigne songs and put on their makeup, side-by-side, in her mirror, then went dancing at gay clubs.

One night, they were slouched on Michelle’s sofa when he said, “Maybe I’m not gay.”

She laughed.

“Maybe I’m not gay,” he said, “because I’m in love with you.”

She thought he was handsome, in a young Jay Leno kind of way — 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, same thick pompadour and prominent chin.

She told him about her life. She managed an insurance agency. She had been charged with neglecting her son when he was 5, after the babysitter didn’t pick him up from the bus stop. She still had custody of him, but her daughter lived with relatives.

Michelle’s dad had left when she was in kindergarten. When Michelle was 16, her mom swallowed a pile of pills and killed herself. Michelle kept her mom’s tiny wedding ring.

John told Michelle that his dad had beat him and he hated his mom, who had abandoned him. He said he was bipolar but taking his meds.

“He was charming,” Michelle said. “Then the devil came out.”

The first time she saw it was on Valentine’s Day, when he got jealous and slit her tires.

Even after that, she let him move in. They enrolled at Hillsborough Community College, where she took graphic arts classes and he studied to become a paralegal.

He asked her to marry him. Four times, she refused. “He’d be as sweet as anything, then go all Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde.”

One afternoon, Michelle was talking to a neighbor in the yard when John called her into the kitchen, upset she had been outside so long. He held up her mother’s little wedding ring, the only piece of her mom Michelle had left.

“Watch this!” John yelled. He hurled the ring out the window, into the overgrown yard.

John never thought he would be a dad. But when his daughter, Phoebe, was born Aug. 22, 2009, he was thrilled to hold her.Courtesy of Michele Jonchuck

She stayed with him. Because she was pregnant.

Their daughter arrived early, on a bright August morning in 2009. John named her Phoebe, after his Chihuahua.

She was a beautiful child, with green eyes, honey-colored curls and her father’s round face. Seldom fussy, easily soothed, she loved being sung to and having someone rub her arm until she fell asleep. John changed diapers, warmed bottles, surprised everyone with his tenderness.

“When Phoebe was born, that changed him,” said his uncle Bryan. “He stepped up more than he ever had.”

John’s mom came back into his life to see her granddaughter and was proud that her son was such a good dad.

When Michelle went back to work after maternity leave, John wanted to stay home with “Pheebs.” But Michelle’s left leg started seizing up. Soon, she couldn’t walk. Doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, and she went on disability.

John tried telemarketing, dabbled in insurance. Mostly he sponged off Michelle’s disability income and concocted a series of easy-money schemes.

“He’d take people’s Social Security numbers and credit cards,” she said. He bought a machine that printed forged checks.

He faked a fall at the Cheesecake Factory, Michelle said, then sued the chain for $250,000. He told everyone he would never have to work again.

Phoebe was 10 months old when Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies first came to Apartment 207 on Royal Sand Circle. Her dad had thrown her mom onto the floor and punched her legs. John completed a court-ordered domestic violence program, and Michelle dropped the charges.

Two years later, neighbors called the cops saying John was choking Michelle. Phoebe, who was 2, hid in her parents’ room and locked the door. John had to kick it down to get her out. A DCF report from April 14, 2012, concluded: Family violence threatens child.

Five days later, an updated report dismissed the concerns because John and Michelle were in counseling.

Signs of present danger is low.

DCF didn’t know the couple kept skipping appointments.

Linda Mattos, owner of From Here to There Day Care in Tampa, keeps a photo of Phoebe as a toddler on her clipboard.

Just inside the door of From Here to There Day Care, a small blue plastic chair sat alone beneath the coat hooks.

Phoebe’s chair.

Linda Mattos
  Linda Mattos, 50

In 2014, Linda let John and Phoebe move in with her and her kids. Her son, Nick, tried to teach Phoebe to swim. But she was terrified of water.

She started coming to Linda Mattos’  school when she was still in diapers. John always dropped her off, because Michelle was too sick to drive. Every morning, Phoebe would wait on that chair for 30, 45 minutes, until she was ready to interact with other kids.

“Well, look at that,” Linda would say. “Phoebe is finally coming out of her turtle shell.”

Phoebe was almost nonverbal, said Linda, 50. She would just stand still and stare. She liked apple juice and Cheetos, sparkly pink sneakers and books about dogs.

Linda set up playdates for Phoebe and treated her to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Despite all the chaos around Phoebe, she seemed happy. Her smile stopped strangers in Walmart.

Linda’s son Nick, 16, took Phoebe to their backyard pool and tried to teach her to swim. But Phoebe was terrified of water; she wouldn’t even take a bath.

“John would tell her, ‘Phoebe, it’s okay!’ ” Nick said. “But she was always so scared.”

To get her into the shallow end, Nick had to put pirate floaties around Phoebe’s arms, a Neverland doughnut around her waist, then ease her into a blowup boat.

Even then, she had to hold on to him.

Phoebe came from a long line of motherless children. Her great-grandmother had abandoned her grandmother. Her grandmother had abandoned her dad.

None of them knew what a good parent was, or how to be one.

  Michele "MawMaw" Jonchuck, 53

John's mother, who left him when he was 5. She has a history of theft and cocaine abuse, but went to rehab to get back into John's and Phoebe's lives. Her own mother abandoned her when she was a toddler.

But when Phoebe was still a toddler, John’s mom decided she finally had a reason to stay sober. Michele Jonchuck , 52, went to rehab and came back with a new purpose. Phoebe called her MawMaw.

She sometimes lived with them as they shuttled through a series of apartments. John couldn’t forgive her. The slightest suggestion about how to raise Phoebe unhinged him.

“You didn’t raise me!” he screamed. “Why do you want to raise my daughter?”

Every few months, he would fly into a rage at his mom or Michelle. He would punch holes in walls, shatter windows. They would get evicted or run out of rent money.

“Things were so weird and demented for so long,” Michelle said.

John thought every place they lived was possessed by bad spirits, she said. She told him he was the demon.

In the years after DCF determined Signs of present danger is low, the cops kept getting called.

Phoebe watched her dad grab MawMaw by the feet and drag her down a staircase. She watched him punch MawMaw in the face.

Phoebe saw her dad pour hot coffee on her mom, throw a concrete block at her, try to strangle her with Christmas lights. She saw him chase her into a closet, then stab a knife into the door.

She was in the back yard when she saw her dad shove her mom into the sand, punch her face three times. Then he chased her mom into the bathroom and cracked her head against the tub.

John went to jail for that one. As usual, Michelle dropped the charges, but she was done with John. She moved out.

When he got out of jail, he turned on her and told a judge she had pulled a box cutter on him.

A child protection investigator wrote: Mr. Jonchuck was observed to have six straight cuts on his interior right wrist that appeared to be self-inflicted.

Nevertheless, John managed to get Phoebe, Phoebe’s share of her mom’s benefits and a restraining order against Phoebe’s mom. Michelle never got the notification about the court hearing, so she didn’t contest the injunction. She couldn’t afford a lawyer.

No one ever officially granted John custody of Phoebe. But because of the injunction, Michelle didn’t see her daughter for more than a year.

There are implications for child safety. This is due to the family’s history of prior reports ... and to the father’s history of child abuse and neglect, DCF concluded on June 7, 2013.

A month later, after John had been arrested for DUI and Michelle for theft, the agency noted they were no longer a couple and issued an update:

The father interacts with Phoebe in a caring manner. The case is being closed with verified findings for family violence threatens child.

It’s unclear what the agency did about the threat except provide pamphlets on pool safety and respite care.

All the calls to cops and DCF — none of them saved Phoebe. None of them helped John, who had been a toddler when DCF came into his life.

During Phoebe’s five years, investigators looked at each incident but missed the big picture. Phoebe never had a consistent caseworker who understood that her dad was beating her mother and grandmother, that he was using drugs and hallucinating, that he was dragging her all over town with her clothes in a garbage bag.

Michelle begged John to let her see Phoebe. But he kept moving and changing his phone number, and she was too sick to fight.

When an investigator visited Phoebe at daycare, She stated she misses mommy.


John Jonchuck Jr. was arrested on domestic violence charges seven times, starting at age 12. He also was charged with drunken driving and forging checks. Mugshots from Hillsborough County, Tampa and St. Petersburg span the last six years.

May 2010
February 2012
January 2013
May 2013
June 2013
November 2013
January 2015

Under what circumstances should a parent lose custody of his child?

When he has no stable address? When he abuses drugs? When he attacks people? When he doesn’t take medication to control his mental illness? When he keeps getting arrested for domestic violence? When people keep calling the abuse hotline, worrying about the child?

It’s hard to imagine what more John Jonchuck Jr. needed to do to get the attention of the state.

DCF has been overwhelmed and understaffed for years. At Florida’s abuse hotline, counselors answer about 300,000 calls a year and dismiss 20 percent. They turn the rest over to investigators, who juggle 25 cases at a time.

The agency’s goal is to keep families together. But over the past decade, almost 500 children that investigators already had checked on died in their parents’ care. Most of those parents abused drugs or alcohol. Many of them, including Phoebe’s, had signed a state-sanctioned “safety plan.”

Child protection investigators visited Phoebe five times and saw signs of danger. Each time, they left her with her dad.

John adored his daughter, everyone agrees. Phoebe told him all the time, “I love you, Daddy.”

John taught her the alphabet, how to hold a crayon and write her name. He brushed her long hair, which had never been cut. He let her win at tic-tac-toe. When she cried, he gave her candy. At night, he let her fall asleep to Blue’s Clues because Phoebe was afraid of the dark.

They never lived by themselves — just daddy and daughter. John always needed company, and rent money. Phoebe gave John his best role: Single Dad. With her by his side, he got sympathy and second chances.

He wanted desperately to be accepted and understood. But when he felt challenged or rejected, or most of all, abandoned, he would lash out and seek vengeance on those closest to him.

During the last year of Phoebe’s life, John dragged her to stay with at least eight different family members and friends. Five single moms told the same story: They would never have let John move in, but they couldn’t bear to leave Phoebe without a home.

At Linda Mattos’ house, John highlighted her hair and did her taxes. She took him to church, where he played on his phone.

At Amanda Serrano’s house, he made spaghetti while Phoebe watched Toddlers in Tiaras. Amanda told him to stop getting high around his daughter.

“He looked at me with these nasty eyes, these devil eyes. Not like the John I knew,” she said. “That was when he smoked that meth.”

At Melody Dishman’s house, he trashed the guest room, piling potato chip bags as high as the mattress. One evening, when Phoebe wanted a fruit cup before dinner, John got so angry he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to her room. Melody scolded him and worried. What else would set him off?

When John and Phoebe lived with Melody Dishman in 2014, he trashed the bedroom they shared. After Melody told him to move out, John broke the bed.
When John and Phoebe lived with Melody Dishman in 2014, he trashed the bedroom they shared. After Melody told him to move out, John broke the bed.
When John and Phoebe lived with Melody Dishman in 2014, he trashed the bedroom they shared. After Melody told him to move out, John broke the bed.Courtesy of Melody Dishman

That’s the only time any of them saw him get rough with Phoebe, but there were plenty of times he scared them.

One morning, after John had been smoking meth all night, he was driving Amanda and her brother when the two men started fighting. All of a sudden, John floored the accelerator, speeding 100 mph down the interstate. Amanda started crying, screaming, “Slow down!”

“It was like he blacked out,” she said.

Each time a roommate kicked him out, he called the cops on them for revenge.

He left behind dirty clothes, piles of trash, broken furniture.

All he took with him was Phoebe.

For a while, John’s uncles took in Phoebe while he slept at a friend’s house. She loved their big Victorian home with Reese’s cups in crystal dishes and koi in the backyard pond. Bryan and Tim worried about Phoebe’s safety with John. They even printed paperwork to adopt her.

But just as John’s dad had done 20 years earlier, John screamed, “I’m not going to let two fags raise my kid!”

Where Phoebe lived

During her short life, Phoebe lived in more than a dozen different apartments, townhomes and houses, according to addresses her parents listed.

The duplex in Tampa’s Drew Park where John grew up.
Phoebe learned to walk in this apartment on Key Biscayne Drive.
John and Phoebe lived here in the Somerset Park complex in 2013.
John threw a concrete block at Phoe­be’s mom on Summer Drive.
The former Riverside Heights home of Phoebe Jonchuck’s uncle, Bryan Morris, and his partner, Timothy Maynard. Phoebe and MawMaw lived here in June 2014. Phoebe loved the koi pond.
John once was arrested at this Metropolitan Ministries home.
In 2012, Phoebe and her parents lived here on Adalee Street.
In this West Crest Avenue house, a landlord found drug paraphernalia.
After killing Phoebe, John gave cops this W Beach Street address.

Phoebe turned 5 on her second day of kindergarten. John brought cupcakes for the class. When he turned to go, Phoebe grabbed his leg and wailed.

Cleveland Elementary teacher Micha Olivier  had never seen a child with such separation anxiety. “She just didn’t want to leave her daddy’s side.”

Micha Olivier
  Micha Olivier, 38

Phoebe’s kindergarten teacher at Cleveland Elementary School.

After a month of Phoebe’s fits, John snapped in front of the teacher, “Why does it have to be this way?”

The next day, MawMaw started bringing Phoebe, and dropoffs got easier. MawMaw rearranged her schedule at the deli and always was first in the car line.

That fall of 2014 was the most stable period of Phoebe’s life.

She moved in with MawMaw while her dad crashed with friends. Phoebe learned how to gargle and say her prayers. She slept beside MawMaw in her double bed, clutching her life-size baby doll, Lucy. In the morning, she woke to MawMaw singing, You Are My Sunshine.

In school, Phoebe made friends who sat with her at the table by the window. She learned to cut shapes and sound out words. She opened up and started telling jokes. She told her teachers she was going to be a dancer. Or a doctor.

“She was never on my radar as someone to worry about,” said Micha, 38. The teacher has taught kids who acted out sexually, a girl whose face had been slashed with a belt buckle, another burned by a bug zapper.

Phoebe never showed any signs of neglect or abuse. The teacher knew her mom wasn’t around, but said her dad and MawMaw adored her. “Phoebe was always clean,” Micha said. She said, “Please,” and, “Thank you,” and knew how to share.

“She was loved,” Micha said. “She never missed a day of school.”

At MawMaw’s house, Phoebe hogged the bed and smiled in her sleep.

Then, one night, she woke screaming. Shaking, she told MawMaw, “I dreamed someone was taking me from you.”

Phoebe’s mom, Michelle Kerr, begged John to let her see her daughter. He finally did, for Thanksgiving 2014, at Denny’s.Courtesy of Michelle Kerr

The wait was too long at Cracker Barrel, so they went to Denny’s for Thanksgiving — turkey and stuffing for $9.49. John had finally agreed to let Phoebe’s mom see her for the holiday.

Looking back, it was probably the beginning of the end.

Phoebe’s mom brought her new boyfriend, a weekend wrestler. She told John they had moved in together. Phoebe seemed to like the new guy.

After dessert, she begged, could she stay with her mommy?

John refused. It was hard enough seeing Michelle with a new man. He wasn’t about to share his daughter.

For a man who so feared abandonment and rejection, the next month delivered a series of blows. John got two new jobs and lost them. He reached out to old friends, who wouldn’t take his calls. Michelle was in love with someone else, talking about getting married. And she wanted Phoebe back in her life.

John called the child abuse hotline, bad-mouthing Phoebe’s mom. Two people called the hotline about him.

He started sending strange texts to his friend Melody on Dec. 14. She had no idea why.

“He was harassing me, calling me a whore, telling me I was a demon who needed God, that he was coming to kill me,” she said. She called police, who told her to get a restraining order. “I knew that wouldn’t work with John.”

A few days later, John got a notice about his lawsuit against the Cheesecake Factory, the one that was going to make him rich. For the case to continue, he had to submit X-rays. He also got a letter from Social Security asking him to account for Phoebe’s benefits, giving him 15 days to respond or lose the $600 a month.

Phoebe kept asking to see her mom. So they all spent Christmas Eve at Michelle’s house: John and MawMaw, Michelle and her boyfriend and teenage son, and Phoebe. John brought Sonny’s BBQ. To everyone’s surprise, he said a blessing.

“I thought maybe all my prayers were answered,” said MawMaw. “He finally knew there was a God.”

“He became fixated with the Bible,” said his stepmom, Mickey Jonchuck, 58. She had a huge family Bible, a century old and written in Swedish, which John started carrying around.

On Christmas Day, John texted Michelle saying she didn’t have to worry about him keeping Phoebe from her any more.

John and MawMaw watched Phoebe open her presents — Play-Doh, a scrapbook kit, bottles of bubbles, a Sparkle Girlz doll.

Then John blew up at MawMaw, yelling, “I never got toys like this!”

Around Christmas 2014, John became obsessed with his stepmom’s huge Swedish Bible, which is more than a century old. He took it everywhere, even to bed.Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office

John hadn’t worked full-time in months. He had staffed the drive-through window at Burger King for a while, cooked for a day in a Jamaican cafe. The week after Christmas, with Amanda’s help, he got a job at a telemarketing company.

“He looked the part — clean-shaven, dressed very nice,” said his boss, Scott Hedger, 35, who ran CCS Dial. “In one breath, you could have the most educated conversation in the world with this guy, and I’d be thinking I could take him to a board meeting. Then he’d flip, and the devil would appear.”

Scott fired him for cursing, hired him back when he begged.

“He could compose himself completely,” said Scott, “when he had the motivation to do so.”

As the new year approached, texts between John and Phoebe’s mom erupted into nasty name-calling — trollop, fat ass, scorned woman, garbage slut — then turned to threats about filing for full custody.

Phoebe’s mom called the DCF hotline Dec. 29, saying John had no stable address and that, years ago, he had smacked Phoebe in the face. The DCF counselor forgot to get John’s address, so no one ever investigated.

The next day, John called to say Phoebe’s mom was insane and using drugs.

DCF went to her house, and she passed their drug test.

On New Year’s Eve, John petitioned for another injunction against Phoebe’s mom, saying her new boyfriend was dangerous. There are amos, knives and swords in the home.

The judge denied John’s request.

That night, Phoebe sat in MawMaw’s lap, watching her great-uncles set off fireworks. She ate two whole steaks, medium rare, and fell asleep before midnight.

When Phoebe’s MawMaw took her to see Santa in 2014, Phoebe drew him a picture and asked him what he wanted for Christmas.Courtesy of Michele Jonchuck

During the first week of January, John texted a half-dozen people asking for something he had never seemed to care about: forgiveness.

He texted his uncles.

No one responded. John had used up all their goodwill.

He spent Sunday at his mom’s house, mulched her yard, played Old Maid with Phoebe. His mom kept talking about how much she wished she could keep Phoebe. That night, John burst into his mom’s room and yanked Phoebe out of bed.

“You’re not taking my kid!” he yelled.

Stunned, John’s mom watched him carry Phoebe out the door. He took her to his dad and stepmom’s house.

“If I’d tried to take her,” she said later, “he would’ve beaten me up.”

When Phoebe’s seat in kindergarten was empty that Monday, the teacher hoped she wasn’t sick.

When Phoebe didn’t show up the next two days, Micha wondered if she should call.

At his dad’s house, John became even more obsessed with his stepmom’s big Swedish Bible. He spread salt around the doorways to keep out bad spirits. He told his stepmom Phoebe was a demon.

At work, John kept quoting Bible verses, talking about Abraham and Isaac and sacrificing a lamb.

His boss didn’t know the Old Testament tale about God commanding Abraham to kill his son, then sparing the boy. So Scott didn’t think John’s ramblings were any more than that.

“Either he was mentally unstable or on drugs,” Scott said. “I couldn’t tell which.”

Scott and Amanda even talked about trying to get John help.

“But he can’t check in somewhere,” Scott told Amanda. “Or he’ll lose his daughter.”

That evening, John told Scott, “I’m going to be fine.”

Then he said something no one understood until later:

“I’ve got to walk the pyramid,” John proclaimed to his co-workers. “I just hope when I get to the top, I don’t have to do it. I hope I don’t have to make that sacrifice.

“I hope someone stops me.”

Chapter 2
The Last Day

The lawyer. The priests. The cops. Strangers. So many people saw Phoebe on her last day alive, skipping beside her dad as he unraveled, holding his hand.

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