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Crime and Courts

After haunting Colorado for three decades, there is new hope in the Jonelle Matthews case

Life changed for a generation of Colorado kids — and law enforcement — when Jonelle Matthews disappeared in 1984. Now police have a person of interest.

Flowers adorn the grave in Greeley of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, who was abducted on Dec. 20, 1984. (Carol McKinley, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Before 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews went missing, Greeley was half the size it is today. 

Kids rode their bikes on dirt roads past farmers’ fields, explored ravines and sold Girl Scout cookies door to door. On the night Jonelle was last seen, Christmas presents were already tucked beneath trees and holiday lights blinked from rooftops and reflected in the snow.

Before Jonelle went missing, parents let their children play outside with little worry.

That all changed on Dec. 20, 1984, the night that Jonelle sang at a Christmas concert at a downtown bank, was driven home by family friends and never seen again. 

“Before then, the kids would walk to school and walk home. But afterward, we all started taking the kids to school and picking them up, simply because we didn’t know why she disappeared,” recalls now-retired Greeley Tribune police beat reporter Mike Peters, who lived in Jonelle’s neighborhood.

“We were terrified,” remembers Diane Duvall, who was a young mother of a 1-year-old boy when Jonelle vanished. “It changed the town. It makes you paranoid.”

Jonelle’s disappearance from her family’s two-story clapboard home in Greeley’s quiet Pheasant Run neighborhood caused parents to hold their children close, launched a wide-scale search and frustrated a generation of police investigators.

Where was Jonelle?

Her smiling school picture was one of the first to show up on a milk carton, amid a nationwide missing children’s campaign that was prompted by the disappearance of another child, Adam Walsh, three years earlier in Florida.

Jonelle Matthews (Photo provided by the Matthews family)

Walsh’s severed head was found 16 days after he was abducted. But Jonelle’s parents worried and waited as the days, weeks, months and years rolled on without a clue about her fate.

And then, on July 25 this year, a crew digging an oil pipeline made a discovery that provided the answer Jonelle’s family had anticipated for decades. 

But now there’s a new question.

Who killed Jonelle?

“We have a missing girl”

Peters remembers driving by the Matthews’ house on his way to work on the early morning of Dec. 21. “There were police cars all around their house. And I went to the police station and they said: ‘We have a missing girl.’” 

School was out for the holidays the following weekend, and residents quickly formed a “Rescue Jonelle Committee” to walk the fields and tape fliers to lamp posts.  

“It was all hands on deck,” recalls John Gates, a 25-year veteran of the Greeley Police Department who is now Greeley mayor. He was the third detective on scene on that dark, freezing night.

“The minute I walked into their home, I thought that this was probably not a runaway,” Gates says. “We walked the neighborhood. It was dark. Nobody in that neighborhood saw anything. It wasn’t long before we started thinking that this was probably not going to end well.”

Jonelle’s father, Jim Matthews, had come home from his older daughter, Jennifer’s, high school basketball game to an empty house. The TV was on, Jonelle’s stockings were abandoned on the couch and the heater next to her chair was still on. Her shoes were left behind, but her slippers were missing. She’d written out a message for her father, an elementary school principal, from a teacher who’d called in sick and needed a sub for the next day. 

“After being home for about a half an hour I just had a really strange feeling,” Matthews says, “because our girls were very good about letting us know if they were gonna change their plans, leaving a note or calling.” Jennifer returned from the basketball game 30 minutes after her dad. Still no sign of Jonelle. 

“She was dramatic,” Jennifer Mogensen says of her younger sister. “If she’d run away, she would have left a note to let everyone know how upset she was.” 

Matthews called their pastor, Jim Christy, first, and then followed up with Jonelle’s friends, who hadn’t seen her. That’s when the police showed up. 

Flashlights on, combing the perimeter of the Matthews’ middle-class home, they discovered footprints in the snow near a window, as if someone had sneaked a peek inside before Jonelle disappeared. 

No witnesses. No fingerprints. No tire tracks. 

“DNA was not a ‘thing,’” Gates says of what was to become one of Greeley’s oldest and most frustrating cold cases. “We were working hard and not getting anywhere.”

For a moment, time stopped as the search continued. 

“It was weird. There were Christmas presents to Jonelle under the tree — and that’s where they stayed,” Mogensen says. 

One of those gifts, Gloria Matthews remembers, was a Cabbage Patch doll she had stood in line for hours to buy for her youngest daughter.  As Christmas came and went, with no Jonelle, families kept their kids inside. Gloria could not bring herself to give Jonelle’s presents away until years later. 

Jonelle Matthews with her father, Jim; her mother, Gloria; and older sister, Jennifer. (Photo provided by the Matthews family)

“It was a big deal,” Peters says. “It was tough on everybody in town. People kept asking me, ‘What’s new? What’s new?’ Nothing was new.

“Police couldn’t do anything.”

Matthews remembers those first few days as a horrible blur: “It was just kind of like a dream … or more like a nightmare that you don’t want to have.”

Time passed, and Greeley continued growing up.

Dirt roads and thirsty fields were paved and crisscrossed by busy streets and housing developments. Farmland and ravines became groomed parks with winding sidewalks where families walk their dogs and young professionals bicycle.

Jonelle’s family moved away.

But over the decades, the case continued to gnaw at Gates, Peters and even others who moved to Greeley years later.

“It’s a case which has haunted me,” says former Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner, who was head of the force from 2006-18 and is now a chief in Texas. “It’s the kind of case which sticks with any police officer. You want those kinds of cases to be solved.”

A new focus, and a discovery

This past December, police investigators put new energy into the stalled investigation, releasing a home video of Jonelle singing Christmas carols with the Franklin Middle School Honor Choir. 

They also began inquiring about an Idaho man they now say is a “person of interest,” a man who told The Colorado Sun stories of a gravedigger, an argument with the last person to see Jonelle alive and an alleged rape.

And then, on July 25, workers digging an oil pipeline found the remains of Jonelle’s body in a field 18 miles southeast of Greeley. With the bones recovered in the shallow grave was tattered fabric: what was left of the outfit Jonelle wore to her Christmas concert: a red blouse, a dark blue sweater vest and skirt. 

Says Gloria Matthews, “Now that God allowed for her body to be exhumed, to find her remains, to us is just a great miracle.” 

Jim and Gloria Matthews interring their daughter Jonelle at the Linn Grove Cemetery in Greeley. (Courtesy Matthews Family)

Investigators are not saying how she was killed, and they won’t divulge whether there was DNA on her unearthed clothing. 

“We’re trying to digest everything that’s happened over the last four weeks,” lead police detective Robert Cash tells The Sun.

Mike Peters and many of the original Greeley cops who investigated Jonelle’s case figured they wouldn’t live to see the day she was found. But when that day came, shock went through the Starbucks table where the so-called “Grumpy Old Men Drinking Coffee” trade war stories once a week. 

“It was such an odd discovery right in the middle of an oil field 20 miles away from her house,” Peters says. 

At the time of the new discovery, none of them had heard the name Steve Pankey. Neither had former Chief Garner. But now, Pankey, 68, has been identified as a person of interest in the investigation. 

Steve Pankey (via Facebook)

A series of seemingly tangential connections to the Matthews family, coupled with some bizarre claims by Pankey himself, has made for a combative relationship between him and Greeley police, although authorities have stopped short of naming him as a suspect.

Pankey, who now lives in Idaho and was a two-time failed candidate for governor there, says he was at his Greeley home the night Jonelle disappeared and remained unaware of her disappearance until he returned from a trip on the night of Dec. 26, 1984, and heard about the case on the news. He denies any involvement.

But Pankey does claim some strained connections to Jonelle’s family.  

He says that on Dec. 27, 1984, a week after Jonelle vanished, his estranged father-in-law, who was a gravedigger, dropped a strange remark about a body that needed to be buried — and then left. Pankey says he never again spoke to his father-in-law, who has since died. He insists he was so worried about the conversation, he told the FBI about it the following week on the advice of his attorney.

Pankey also talks about a volatile relationship he had with the last known person to see Jonelle alive. He claims that Russ Ross, who dropped Jonelle off at her home at around 8 p.m. on the night of Dec. 20, assaulted him in the 1970s over Pankey’s attempt to start a union at the 7UP bottling company where they both worked.  

Pankey also says he was the youth pastor at the Sunny View Church of the Nazarene, which Jonelle’s family later attended after he was kicked out. He tells The Sun he was accused of raping the piano player, charges he says were dropped after he took a polygraph test.

Although a church offical claims Pankey was never youth pastor at the church, police say they have corroborated Pankey’s statement with the alleged rape victim. Records of the charges from 1977 are no longer available.

LISTEN

Person of Interest Steve Pankey tells the Colorado Sun about how he volunteered to  give DNA this summer, and what the Greeley Police took out of his home during a search on September 4th. 

Police on Pankey’s trail

Pankey moved his family to Idaho in 1989, five years after Jonelle went missing, and has made a name for himself there as a marginal gubernatorial candidate, running first in 2014 as the Constitution Party candidate and then in the 2018 Republican primary. 

He says he has been in touch with Idaho authorities throughout the years regarding the Greeley cold case, and was even contacted by them when JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in 1996. He suspects it was because authorities might have linked two Colorado girls who died at Christmas time. 

He says he wrote to the Greeley District Attorney’s office about Jonelle’s case through the years, but that some of his letters were returned, unopened.

However, he claims that on Aug. 15, just weeks after the discovery of Jonelle’s body, two Greeley police detectives visited him at his Idaho townhome and accused him of being involved in the girl’s disappearance and death. The police have not confirmed this meeting to The Sun.

Further, he says that on Sept. 4, gun-toting SWAT officers from Colorado and Idaho surrounded and then searched his home and confiscated his two 2019 Subarus, which were later returned, and a variety of other items. One item was a CD from his son’s funeral, which Pankey figures may have been of interest because of a rumor — one he denies — that he mentioned Jonelle “over his son’s ashes” at the service.  

He first told the Idaho Statesman that he was a suspect in the Jonelle murder investigation, and then he gave lengthy interviews to The Colorado Sun, in which he claimed that he gave a DNA sample to Greeley police. But in a statement, the department says law enforcement has never requested his DNA, although Pankey has made “repeated efforts” to speak with detectives — a claim that Pankey, in turn, denies.

“If the Greeley Police Department thinks I murdered Jonelle Matthews, or if they think I murdered John F. Kennedy or if they think I murdered Abraham Lincoln, they’ve got my DNA,” Pankey tells The Sun.

LISTEN

Person of Interest Steve Pankey tells the Colorado Sun he didn’t hear the name “Jonelle Matthews” until six days after she went missing.

Pankey gave an hour-and-47-minute interview to The Sun on Sept. 15. The next day, he referred questions to a newly retained lawyer, Hyong Pak, of Twin Falls, Idaho. Pak told Pankey not to give further interviews.

Cash, the lead Greeley detective on the case, has asked The Sun to share the recorded interview with investigators. (Editor’s note: The Sun does not share notes with law enforcement authorities)

The former home of Jonelle Matthews’ family on Sept. 9, 2019. (Carol McKinley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A final goodbye

The Matthews’ former congregation, Sunny View Church of the Nazerene, no longer meets in the same space. In August, the building’s new occupants, The Adventure: Seventh-Day Adventist Church, opened its doors to 500 people for a “Closure Celebration” of Jonelle’s short life. Jim and Gloria Matthews sang a gospel hymn called “(Jesus) There’s Something About That Name,” Jonelle’s favorite bedtime song, and people lined up to express their sorrow. Greeley police officers watched from the corners of the church.

Jennifer Mogensen says when police interviewed her family about the case in August, they asked if they’d ever heard the name Steve Pankey. Neither she nor her parents ever had. 

Now, the family watches this latest chapter of Jonelle’s unresolved story with caution. 

“People who love our family are listening to what (Pankey) says and getting creeped out,” says Jennifer, who now lives in Washington state. “I see it as a power play, and I don’t want to be a part of his game.”

Jim Matthews finds the Pankey statements bizarre.

“It’s just amazing how quickly things have moved along from the phone call we got saying, ‘We think we have the remains of Jonelle,’” he says in a phone interview from their home in Costa Rica. “I was thinking that whoever did this is probably dead.”

The stark truth of Jonelle’s end has not sunk in all the way. Gloria Matthews still talks about her daughter in the present tense. 

“I still can’t believe that this has happened to her,” she says.

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