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It’s been nearly 36 years since 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews disappeared from her Colorado home after returning from a holiday choir concert in December 1984, but authorities finally believe they have found her killer.
Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke announced in a press conference Tuesday that a grand jury had indicted 69-year-old Steven Pankey of the murder and kidnapping of Matthews—whose remains were discovered by construction workers in July 2019 in a rural area of Weld County.
“Today’s press conference is 36 years in the making,” Greeley Police Chief Mark Jones said during the event. “Over three decades the disappearance of Jonelle Matthews has left our community with many unanswered questions and a void that has not been filled. With the arrest of Steve Pankey for the murder of Jonelle Matthews some of these questions are starting to be answered.”
Pankey was arrested Monday at his Meridian, Idaho home without incident, but when Matthews disappeared, he had lived approximately two miles from her home in Colorado and was known to watch children walk home from the middle school that Matthews had attended, according to the indictment in the case.
His family had also attended the same church as the Matthews family.
“There was a little bit of overlap between the families,” Rourke said.
Matthews disappeared from her family’s Greeley home some time between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 20, 1984.
Earlier that night, Matthews had been singing Christmas carols as part of a holiday concert. Her friend Deanna Ross and her friend’s father Russell Ross dropped the 12-year-old off at her home around 8 p.m. that night, according to The Denver Post.
“She was driven home to her west Greeley home by her family friend, walked into her house and that was the last time she seen alive,” Rourke said Tuesday. “By the time her father came home an hour later, Jonelle was missing.”
When Matthews’ father walked into the family’s home, he found the television set turned on, the space heater sitting in the middle of the room turned on and Matthews' shoes nearby, but no sign of his missing daughter.
The case earned national attention, with President Ronald Reagan even mentioning Matthews in a 1985 speech, according to Rourke. And her face was one of the first to appear on milk cartons used in schools across the nation as part of an initiative by the National Child Safety Council.
But despite the attention and the “thousands of hours” investigators put into trying to solve the case over the years, the crime remained unsolved.
Then last year, Matthews' remains were discovered by construction workers.
“She was dressed in the same clothes she was wearing in 1984,” Rourke said.
An autopsy would determine she had been killed by a single gunshot wound to the head.
Investigators believe Pankey shot the young girl “during the course of the kidnapping,” according to the indictment.
After Matthews disappeared, authorities said 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 said.
Pankey had provided an “alibi” to authorities saying he and his family had gone on a trip to California on Dec. 21, 1984, authorities said.
He told the Idaho Statesman in an interview last year that on the night Matthews disappeared, he had been home with his wife packing for the trip to Big Bear Lake to visit his parents. He said the family returned to Colorado on Dec. 26, 1984 and that’s when he first heard the news about a missing child.
“I never met Jonelle, I never met her family. I didn’t know she existed or disappeared until Wednesday, Dec. 26 (1984),” he said.
However, authorities said Pankey’s now ex-wife Angela Hicks told investigators that they didn’t leave for the vacation until Dec. 22, two days after Matthews disappeared. According to the indictment, she described the trip as “unexpected.”
On the way home, she said Pankey uncharacteristically listened to the radio, searching for news about Matthews' disappearance. Hicks also told investigators that Pankey forced her to read him newspaper stories about the case.
Immediately after the family arrived back in Colorado, Hicks said Pankey began digging in their yard and two days later a car on their property burst into flames. Pankey allegedly disposed of the vehicle in a nearby salvage yard.
Hicks also told authorities that during a church service in 1985, she heard Pankey mutter “false prophet” after the minister said that Matthews would be found safe and unharmed and became so agitated that he had be removed from the service.
Decades later, in 2008, at the funeral for Pankey’s son, who had been murdered, Hicks said she heard him say “I hope God didn’t allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews.”
Rourke said Tuesday that Pankey—who twice embarked on long-shot bids for Idaho governor in 2014 and 2018—didn’t become a suspect in the murder until 2018.
“It’s really a matter of these detectives taking all of that information, putting it together and really doing the follow-up investigation that needed to be done, re-interviewing witnesses if necessary,” Rourke said, adding that the discovery of the remains was also “significant” in advancing the case.
Rourke said there is “no definitive link DNA-wise” that links Pankey to Matthews.
However, investigators said Pankey had knowledge of a key detail of the case that had been withheld from the media. Authorities had never revealed that a rake had been used to “obliterate shoe impressions in the snow,” according to the affidavit.
A grand jury was convened in August to examine the case against Pankey and returned the indictment on Friday, NBC News reports.
Pankey has been charged with one count of murder in the first degree-after deliberation, one count of murder in the first degree-felony murder, second-degree kidnapping and two crime of violence counts.
Pankey’s attorney, Anthony J. Viorst, told local station KUSA that he believes his client will be exonerated on all charges against him.
“The fact that they waited 36 years to indict him reflects the fact that they don’t have any evidence, there’s never been any evidence,” he said.
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