The Idaho man accused of kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews in 1984 will stand trial this month on murder charges almost four decades after the girl disappeared from her Greeley home and was never seen alive again.
The five-week murder trial for Steven Pankey, 70, begins with jury selection Wednesday, 37 years after Jonelle’s mysterious disappearance gripped the region. Pankey is accused of forcing Jonelle from her home at gunpoint on Dec. 20, 1984, and then killing her.
He was charged with first-degree murder in 2020, following the discovery of Jonelle’s body and decades of bizarre behavior on his part that led authorities to suspect him in the killing. Over the years, he claimed to have knowledge of the crime and he repeatedly inserted himself into the investigation, according to an indictment filed against him.
Jonelle disappeared five days before Christmas in 1984, after she returned home from singing carols at a nursing home as part of a middle school choir concert. She got a ride home from a friend’s parent, arrived to an empty house and went inside around 8:30 p.m. She took off her shoes and turned on the TV. She switched on a space heater and answered the phone, jotting down a message for her father.
When Jonelle’s father arrived home about an hour later — he’d been out watching Jonelle’s sister’s high school basketball game — the house’s lights and TV were on and Jonelle’s stockings were on the couch. Everything looked normal, except Jonelle was gone.
Although there were no signs of a struggle, police quickly suspected foul play. They discovered footprints in the snow around the family’s home. Massive searches were organized for Jonelle. A $5,000 reward for her return was offered and detectives followed thousands of leads, even as time passed and hope faded that she’d be found alive. Jonelle’s photo was put on flyers and sent to 4,000 stores across the country. President Ronald Reagan mentioned her during a speech about missing children in 1985.
Still, Jonelle’s body was not found until 2019, when construction crews discovered the girl’s remains buried in a rural area of Weld County — she was wearing the same clothes she’d disappeared in and had been shot in the forehead.
Pankey lived two miles away from Jonelle around the time she went missing, and about 10 miles from the spot her body was eventually found. He attended the same church as her family and was known to watch children at her middle school as they walked home from school, according to the indictment.
Just two days after Jonelle disappeared, Pankey took a surprise road trip to California. On the drive home, he listened to the radio obsessively for news on Jonelle, his ex-wife told authorities. Then he “started digging” in the backyard, and a couple days later, a car on his property “burst into flames,” and Pankey got rid of the vehicle, according to the indictment.
Pankey knew that a rake had been used to obscure footprints at the crime scene, according to the indictment, and that information was never revealed to the public. Authorities have not indicated a motive for the attack and have not said if Jonelle was sexually assaulted.
As early as 1999, Pankey sought out immunity deals with law enforcement in exchange for revealing information he had on the killing, wrote letters to police outlining his alibi and wrote filings in court cases that discussed Jonelle, according to the indictment.
He became an official person of interest in the case in 2018, and in 2019 Pankey went public with that fact, telling the Idaho Statesman newspaper he was cooperating and innocent.
Pankey twice ran unsuccessfully for governor of Idaho, as a Constitution Party candidate in 2014 and again as a Republican in the 2018 primary.
His trial is expected to last into early November.
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