GREELEY, Colo. — A man who twice ran unsuccessfully for Idaho governor has been indicted in the 1984 kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old girl whose skeletal remains were unearthed last year in rural Colorado.
Steven Dana Pankey, 69, was arrested at his Twin Falls, Idaho, home on Monday in connection with the death of Jonelle Matthews. He remained Wednesday at the Ada County Jail awaiting extradition to Colorado.
Matthews was abducted from her Greeley home the night of Dec. 20, 1984, following a Christmas concert at her middle school. Her whereabouts were a mystery until July 2019, when her remains were discovered by an excavation crew digging an oil and gas pipeline in an area of Weld County.
Pankey is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of second-degree kidnapping and two sentencing enhancement counts of a crime of violence, according to the indictment.
The grand jury detailed many damning allegations against Pankey, including an incriminating statement he reportedly made at his own murdered son’s funeral in 2008.
“I hope God didn’t allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews,” Pankey said, according to his ex-wife.
During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Greeley police Chief Mark Jones said Pankey’s arrest was “36 years in the making.”
Watch the announcement of Pankey’s arrest below, courtesy of KDVR in Denver.
“For over three decades, the disappearance of Jonelle Matthews has left our community with many unanswered questions and a void that has not been filled,” Jones said. "With the arrest of Steve Pankey for the murder of Jonelle Matthews, some of these questions are starting to be answered.
“I trust this new development helps the Matthews family, their friends and our community to receive some closure and healing from this horrific crime.”
Jonelle’s older sister, Jennifer Mogensen, told The Associated Press that she did not remember Pankey but said her family is thankful for the arrest.
“Always in the back of your mind you might have a little bit of hope,” Mogensen said. “We’re extremely grateful we’re getting this next step toward justice.”
Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said Tuesday that Jonelle had participated in a Christmas concert at her school the night she vanished. Around 8 p.m., she was dropped off at home by a friend and the friend’s father.
Her mother was out of town visiting relatives and her father was at her older sister’s basketball game, authorities said.
When Jonelle walked inside her family’s home that night, it was the last time anyone but her killer saw her alive.
When her father arrived home about an hour later, he found the front door unlocked and his daughter’s shoes and stockings discarded in the living room. There was no other sign of the preteen.
“After being home for about a half an hour I just had a really strange feeling, because our girls were very good about letting us know if they were gonna change their plans, leaving a note or calling,” Jim Matthews told The Colorado Sun last fall.
“What ensued was a 35-year-long investigation into her disappearance,” Rourke said. “President Ronald Reagan mentioned Jonelle by name in a speech in 1985.”
In that March 1985 speech, made at a White House meeting with members of the National Newspaper Association, Reagan told reporters that newspapers had immense power to help find missing children.
“Parents cry out for help, many through letters to me,” Reagan said, according to a transcript in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. “For example, I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado, who would have celebrated a happy 13th birthday with her family just last month. But five days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home.”
Jonelle was one of the first missing children pictured on the side of a milk carton, a campaign initiated by the National Child Safety Council the year the preteen vanished.
Jones said investigators spent thousands of hours on the case since Dec. 20, 1984, always with the “desire to find justice for Jonelle and her family.” Despite numerous leads, authorities got no closer to finding the missing girl until her remains were found last year.
An autopsy indicated Jonelle died of a gunshot wound to the forehead, Rourke said. When her remains were found, she was wearing the clothes she’d worn to the Christmas concert.
Pankey, who lived about two miles from the Matthews family in 1984, moved from Colorado to Idaho at some point following Jonelle’s disappearance. According to the AP, Pankey ran for Idaho governor as a Constitution Party candidate in 2014 and in the Republican primary in 2018.
He was named a person of interest in Jonelle’s kidnapping and murder that same year.
Earlier this year, Pankey lost a bid to become Twin Falls County sheriff. According to his bio, the Ventura, California, native earned an associate’s degree with a minor in criminal justice.
“Public safety is my passion. Public safety is my mission,” Pankey said in a campaign video. “I’m about positive change.”
Rourke said Pankey had alluded to his potential involvement in the crime multiple times over the decades, but that information was not made public. Those details are laid out in the indictment, which was released Tuesday after the news conference.
According to the indictment, Pankey was a congregant of Sunny View Church of the Nazarene until the summer of 1978, around the same time the Matthews family joined the church. He told the Idaho Statesman last year that he served as a youth minister at the church, where he knew people familiar with the Matthews family.
He said he did not know the girl or her family, according to the Statesman. He made similar statements to the Sun.
“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,” Pankey told the newspaper. “I did not know that this young lady existed or disappeared. I did not know her family.”
In interviews following Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey demonstrated an “intimate familiarity” with the neighborhood where the girl lived, the indictment states.
He would also often watch school children walk home from Franklin Middle School, where Jonelle was a student.
“(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. “(He) filed pleadings in many cases, both civil and criminal, that contained both direct and veiled statements about Jonelle Matthews.”
In one of those cases, in 2003, Pankey asserted that “the family should be informed that (Jonelle) died before crossing 10th Street, and not give the family hope,” according to the document.
Read Pankey’s indictment below.
Pankey repeatedly demanded immunity from authorities for information he claimed he had about the case. He did apparently have one bit of information that was never made public.
“Steven Dana Pankey knew of, and discussed, a crucial piece of evidence from the Matthews house withheld from the public by law enforcement; specifically, a rake was used to obliterate shoe impressions in the snow,” the indictment states.
Pankey also made incriminating statements in 2013, when he sent an “alibi document” to police. According to the grand jury, the letter detailed a trip his family had planned for Dec. 21, 1984, the day after Jonelle vanished.
His ex-wife, Angela Hicks, told authorities, however, that the trip, which took place on Dec. 22, was “unexpected.” She said Pankey “dumped” the family dogs before the trip and they were never seen again.
“On the drive home, she stated he uncharacteristically listened to the radio, searching for news accounts of Jonelle’s disappearance,” the indictment states. “Upon arriving back in Greeley, (Pankey) forced her to read the newspaper accounts about Jonelle to him.”
When they got home on Dec. 26, Pankey “immediately began digging in their yard,” Hicks said. Two days later, a car on their property burst into flames.
Pankey disposed of the car at a local salvage yard, according to the indictment.
In early 1985, months after Jonelle vanished, the minister at Pankey’s church proclaimed that Jonelle would be found safe.
Pankey “began muttering ‘false prophet’” and became so agitated that he had to be removed from the building by fellow congregants, the indictment states.
Over the years, Pankey repeatedly searched for information about Jonelle on the internet, the grand jury said. After being contacted by Greeley police investigators in 2019, he tried to delete evidence of those searches from his devices.
See footage from Jonelle Matthews' final Christmas concert below.
Pankey was aware of his status as a person of interest in the case. In September 2019, after his home was searched, he told the Statesman that he was a suspect in Jonelle’s killing.
He told the newspaper he’d provided a DNA sample to police.
Pankey said he was on the Greeley Police Department’s radar because of a 1977 accusation of date rape by a woman he was seeing, the paper reported. He was charged but that charge was later dismissed.
“Once you’re accused of something like date rape, you’re forever stigmatized,” Pankey said.
Pankey told the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, last week that he was being framed by Greeley police because of his status as a “celibate homosexual.” He claimed that an unidentified police officer buried Jonelle’s body and set him up.
“I was kicked out of the Army under honorable conditions for homosexuality,” Pankey said. “I repented, left the homosexual life in 1976.”
In 1984, the then-33-year-old Pankey was married and had a 5-year-old son.
Rourke and Jones addressed the Matthews family during the announcement about Pankey’s arrest.
“To the Matthews family, I pray that this news brings you some closure and hope as we continue to pursue justice for Jonelle and your family,” Jones said. “We have never forgotten Jonelle and we never will.”
Jennifer Mogensen, Jonelle’s older sister, flew to Colorado to thank police and prosecutors on Friday as the grand jury wrapped up its work on the case, according to the Sun.
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