Nearly 36 years after 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews disappeared from her Greeley home, a Weld County grand jury has indicted an Idaho man for her death.
Steven Pankey, who lived in Greeley at the time of Jonelle’s disappearance and had ties to the family’s church, was indicted on Oct. 9 on five charges, including first-degree murder and kidnapping.
Pankey, a failed two-time Idaho gubernatorial candidate, was arrested without incident on Monday, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said at a news conference Tuesday. He is being held at the Ada County jail in Idaho without bond.
Rourke said Pankey had “intimate knowledge of the crime” that wasn’t known to the public — specifically that a rake was used to wipe out footprints in the snow.
The indictment alleges that Pankey took Jonelle from her home on Dec. 20, 1984, and shot her in the head during the kidnapping. It also said he had been watching Jonelle and other children walk home from Franklin Middle School, and that he exhibited strange behavior over the years, including muttering “false prophet” in 1985 during a church service when the pastor announced that Jonelle Matthews would be found safe.
The indictment also says Pankey “intentionally inserted himself in the investigation many times over the years claiming to have knowledge of the crime which grew inconsistent and incriminating over time.”
The indictment states that Pankey’s ex-wife, Angela Hicks, provided much of the information on his background, which may have led to the charges, including “dumping” the family dogs before they went on their Christmas trip in December 1984. The dogs “were never seen again,” she said.
When Pankey and his ex-wife returned from that trip, “Pankey immediately began digging in their yard, and approximately two days later a car on their property burst into flames,” the indictment quotes Hicks as saying. Pankey then disposed of the car at a salvage yard.
In 2008, Hicks heard Pankey say “at his murdered son’s funeral, ‘I hope God didn’t allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews,'” the indictment says.
Jonelle was last seen walking into her home after family friends dropped her off. She had been singing with her middle school choir for a Christmas concert.
Her disappearance prompted a manhunt by Greeley police. Jonelle’s smiling school picture was among 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.
Around an hour after the friends dropped Jonelle off at home, her father, Jim, walked into his empty house. Jonelle’s stockings were draped over the couch and her house shoes were missing.
“After being home for about a half an hour I just had a really strange feeling,” Matthews told The Colorado Sun last October, “because our girls were very good about letting us know if they were gonna change their plans, leaving a note or calling.”
Jonelle’s mother had gone out of town to visit family, and her older sister, Jennifer Mogensen, was playing a basketball game and returned home not long after their father.
Mogensen told The Sun that her sister would have left a note if she had gone somewhere. “It was weird. There were Christmas presents to Jonelle under the tree — and that’s where they stayed,” Mogensen told The Sun.
The Matthews family eventually moved from Greeley, and so did Pankey, who moved to Idaho and ran for governor twice. Most recently, he ran for Twin Falls County Sheriff and lost in the primary in May.
Jonelle’s remains were found on July 23, 2019, by a crew digging an oil pipeline in Weld County.
Two months later, Greeley police announced that Pankey was a person of interest in the case and searched his home and car. But he was not arrested for the child’s murder and in fact, continued to draw attention to himself, by calling and texting reporters to profess his innocence.
In December 2019, in a nearly two-hour phone interview, Pankey told The Sun that he was innocent in Jonelle’s murder.
“If the Greeley PD 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,” he said. “I did not know that this young lady existed or disappeared. I did not know her family.”
In subsequent text messages to a Sun reporter, Pankey floated a theory that the Greeley police killed the girl in an elaborate cover-up.
“Justice for Jonelle requires the guilty to be held accountable,” Pankey said in January. He explained why he decided he was going to run for Twin Falls County Sheriff: “I want to work within the system to improve the system.”
Tony Viorst, Pankey’s Colorado-based attorney, said he expects the case to go to trial. He says Pankey will likely be traveling to Weld County by next week as he’s waived extradition. Viorst said Pankey was asked to testify before the grand jury, and almost did.
“He wanted to testify but I finally was able to convince him not to,” Viorst said.
He said Pankey had no motive to kill the 12-year-old.
“There’s no DNA, no ballistics, no fingerprints, no hair follicles, no anything. it’s basically based on his own statements,” Viorst said. “Mr. Pankey is a person who likes attention but really has zero involvement in this crime.”
Greeley Mayor John Gates was a police sergeant in 1984 and was among those who searched for Jonelle. Through the years, he said, he never could figure out what Pankey was up to.
“The minute I walked into their home, I thought that this was probably not a runaway,” Gates said. “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.”
Jennifer Mogensen, Jonelle’s older sister, flew to Colorado from her home out of state to thank Greeley police as the grand jury wrapped up Friday.
“The premeditation of Jonelle’s murder put a little shock to my stomach. He had the weapons,” Mogensen told The Sun. “I would like to know, how did it come to be Jonelle? What happened that night? I want to put to rest some of the thoughts that go through my head.”
After she left the courthouse, Mogensen visited the cemetery where her little sister is buried to let her know.
“This is a big step to getting justice for you,” she said.
This story was updated at 9:39 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2020, to include comments from Pankey’s attorney.