Crime

Why Ex-Politician Steve Pankey Is on Trial for Jonelle Matthews Cold Case Murder

Steven Pankey's booking photo and a snapshot of him circa December 1984, around the time Jonelle Matthews vanished.
Steven Pankey's booking photo and a snapshot of him circa December 1984, around the time Jonelle Matthews vanished. 19th Judicial District DA's office
Joelle Matthews vanished from her Greeley home in late 1984. This week, Steve Pankey, the accused killer of the twelve-year-old, finally went on trial in Weld County.

In the years between her murder and the case finally going to court, Pankey twice ran for governor of Idaho, in 2014 and 2018.

The passage of more than three decades doesn't dull the impact of the original crime. Indeed, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation cold-case page on Matthews offers heart-rending details, noting that she stood five-foot-two and had a scar on her chin, pierced ears and braces. "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.," it notes. "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."

click to enlarge A photo of the late Jonelle Matthews. - FAMILY PHOTO VIA THE 19TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT DA'S OFFICE
A photo of the late Jonelle Matthews.
Family photo via the 19th Judicial District DA's office
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, and the following 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 after he was named a person of interest in Matthews's death, he proved 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:
In August 2020, the Weld County DA's office revealed that a grand jury was looking into the case. At first, prosecutors declined to identify Pankey as the target of the inquiry. But in October 2020, he was formally indicted on five counts related to Matthews's death: murder in the first degree after deliberation, murder in the first degree/felony murder, second-degree kidnapping, and two crime-of-violence charges.

The indictment took the unusual step of listing the 26 reasons that the grand jury came up with those charges. Some of the items are accusations, while others offer circumstantial evidence — but those circumstances are jaw-slackening. They include excerpts from unrelated court documents in which Pankey argued that if the court didn't rule in his favor, "he would get the death penalty for revealing the location of Jonelle Matthews's body," and details provided by his former wife, Angela Hicks, about an unexpected trip immediately after the girl vanished, plus the dumping of the family's dogs, an unexplained excavation in their backyard, and a vehicle that inexplicably burst into flames.

The jury in the Pankey case was seated on October 12, with the trial moving forward the next day, and reported testimony on October 14 included a claim from a friend of Jonelle's — one of thirteen witnesses who took the stand — that the sight of a car matching the description of one owned by Pankey had frightened the girl earlier on the day she vanished.


The trial continues today, October 15 — and there are likely many more strange revelations to come.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts