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A family photo of the late Jonelle Matthews and Steve Pankey as seen in a campaign video.
A family photo of the late Jonelle Matthews and Steve Pankey as seen in a campaign video.

Jonelle Matthews Death With Bizarre Tie to Politician Goes to Grand Jury

On August 18, the Weld County District Attorney's Office announced, "The 19th Judicial District Grand Jury has accepted the investigation into the death of Jonelle Matthews," a twelve-year-old who vanished from her Greeley home in late 1984.

This development offers new hope for closure of a decades-old mystery that returned to the forefront last year, when Matthews's remains were found in a rural Weld County field, and took a bizarre twist after the Greeley Police Department named as a person of interest Steve Pankey, an Idaho resident who twice ran for governor of that state, in 2014 and 2018.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation cold-case page on Matthews offers heartrending details, noting that she stood five-foot-two and had a scar on her chin, pierced ears and braces. Its summary of her disappearance: "On the evening of December 20, 1984, twelve-year-old Jonelle Matthews was dropped off at her parents' home by her friend's family at approximately 8:30 p.m. When her parents returned home later that night, they discovered that Jonelle was missing. She was last seen wearing a red blouse, dark gray sweater vest, charcoal gray skirt, light blue ski jacket, and house slippers."

The page also includes a photo of what Matthews would have looked like had she grown to be an adult — but she never got the chance. On July 24, 2019, her remains were discovered by pipeline workers. In September, Greeley police revealed that they were actively investigating Pankey, who lived two miles from the Matthews home at the time of her disappearance; he later relocated to Twin Falls, Idaho.

While Pankey reportedly gave the cold shoulder to Greeley cops who'd traveled to Idaho to speak with him, he was considerably more talkative with select members of the news media. In the weeks after his name was publicly linked to the Matthews case, Pankey gave an extensive interview to the Colorado Sun in which he denied any wrongdoing but claimed intersections with several of those in the girl's orbit. Pankey told the Sun that he had been a youth pastor at a church her family attended, and added that he'd later been accused of raping the piano player there. He also insisted that Russ Ross, the man who'd taken Matthews home on the night Matthews disappeared, "assaulted him in the 1970s over Pankey's attempt to start a union at the 7UP bottling company where they worked."

Pankey was even more loquacious during a sit-down with Idaho television station KTVB, which posted nearly an hour's worth of unedited conversational footage:

The Weld County DA's office isn't saying whether Pankey is the target of the current inquiry. A spokesperson notes that no further information about the grand jury's participation can be offered "due to this being an open investigation and because of Colorado grand jury secrecy laws."

Once again, Matthews's family is left in the position of waiting to see if justice will finally be forthcoming — just as they have been for more than 35 years.

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