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Former Idaho Gubernatorial Candidate Is Convicted Of Killing 12-Year-Old Who Disappeared After Christmas Concert In 1984

“There is still hope for you. It is not too late to confess your sins," Jonelle Matthews' father told Steve Pankey in court after the jury convicted the 71-year-old. 

By Jill Sederstrom
5 Infamous Cold Cases of Murder

A former Idaho gubernatorial candidate has been convicted in the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, who disappeared from her Greeley, Colorado home in 1984.

A Weld County jury found Steve Pankey, 71, guilty of second-degree kidnapping with use of a deadly weapon; felony murder and false reporting to authorities after an earlier jury had been unable to reach a verdict in the case last year, according to the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

The jury also found Pankey not guilty of first-degree murder in the case.

“I cannot thank the members of this jury enough, not just the 12 members of the jury who were allowed to deliberate on this case but all 15 jurors who sacrificed their time, sacrificed time away from family, from jobs, from school,” Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said from the steps of the courthouse shortly after the verdict, according to a press conference streamed by the news outlet. “I have to tell you that I think the verdict they reached was an incredibly thoughtful and proper verdict to be very honest with you.”

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Rourke chose to focus on his comments on Jonelle — the 12-year-old who vanished from her home on Dec. 20, 1984 — rather than discuss Pankey, saying he planned to no longer say the 71-year-old’s name.

“It’s not about the defendant, it’s about Jonelle,” he said. “This is an effort of 38 years of incredible police work by the Greeley Police Department and incredible amount of work by the attorneys in my office.”

Jonelle disappeared on the evening of Dec. 20, 1984, after being dropped off at the home by a family friend following a Christmas concert. When her father Jim Matthews came home an hour later, Jonelle was gone, according to NBC affiliate KUSA.

Jonelle's disappearance gained nationwide attention when then-President Ronald Reagan mentioned the case in a speech highlighting missing children. 

A handout photo of Jonelle Matthews

For decades, the case would remain unsolved until Jonelle’s remains were discovered in a field by oil workers in 2019. The 12-year-old was still dressed in the same clothes she had been wearing the night she disappeared, according to an earlier press conference in the case. An autopsy would later determine that she had been shot in the head.

Pankey was arrested the following year after investigators said he had intentionally inserted himself into the investigation and had made a series of troubling statements to his now ex-wife about the case.

At the time of the murders, Pankey had lived near the Matthews family and had briefly attended the same church, according to an affidavit in the case.

Pankey — who had two failed bids for Idaho governor in 2014 and 2018 — was convicted based on a largely circumstantial case, which included testimony from his ex-wife, Pankey’s own statements to law enforcement and his odd behaviors around the time of the murder, including taking a sudden trip with his family to California, being seemingly obsessed with the case and lighting a vehicle on fire in his backyard.

There was no DNA evidence to link him the crime.

Pankey was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

During a victim impact statement delivered by Jim Matthews, the grieving father implored Pankey to take responsibility for his actions.

“You’ve claimed to be a Christian on many occasions,” Jim said, according to KUSA. “There is still hope for you. It is not too late to confess your sins, which is the first step to your forgiveness. The second step is to repent or turn away from your evil ways… It’s up to you, and it’s not too late, Steve Pankey.”

Yet, during his own brief comments to the court, Pankey continued to profess his innocence.

“I am a Christian. I will be in heaven. I am innocent, and this is not justice for Jonelle,” he said.

Outside the courthouse, Jonelle’s mother, Gloria Matthews, said she had been unable to forgive Pankey for taking her daughter’s life.

"God's the only one that can forgive evil, and I feel that this is evil,” she said.

She called the verdict “justice” for her daughter.

The case was initially brought to trial last fall, but it resulted in a mistrial.

Greeley Police Chief Adam Turk said Monday that the police had “poured thousands of hours” into the investigation to find the killer.

“It is and will always be about Jonelle,” he said.