Crime

Mistrial for Steve Pankey, Ex-Politician Accused of Killing Twelve-Year-Old

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. Colorado Bureau of Investigation/YouTube file photo
A mistrial has been declared in the murder trial of Steve Pankey, a former candidate for Idaho governor who was accused of killing twelve-year-old Jonelle Matthews in Weld County back in December 1984. On November 4, the judge in the case announced that the jury had been able to reach agreement on the most minor of the four counts against Pankey — failure to report to authorities — and deadlocked on the remaining three: murder after deliberation, felony murder and kidnapping.

The development further delays the search for justice for Jonelle, which has dragged on for almost four decades.

This passage of time hasn't dulled the impact of the original crime. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation cold-case page on Jonelle Matthews offers heartrending 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."

The page also includes a photo of what Jonelle 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'd 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 the murder, he proved considerably more talkative with select members of the news media. In the weeks after his name was publicly linked to the Jonelle 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 Jonelle home on the night she 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 Jonelle 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 on what by then were four charges the next day. But following weeks of testimony, signs pointed away from a slam-dunk conviction. At 5:01 p.m. November 2, Krista Henery, spokesperson for the 19th Judicial District Attorney's Office, the prosecuting agency, noted in an email to the media that "the jury has been sent home for the evening. They'll return tomorrow morning at 8:30 to continue deliberations." Around the same time on Wednesday, November 3, she sent out a similar message: "The jury has not returned a verdict today. Jurors have been sent home for the day and will continue deliberations tomorrow morning at 8:30."

Then, at 1:06 p.m. on November 4, Henery confirmed that "the judge has declared a mistrial in the Steve Pankey homicide trial. Jurors couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict for: Murder in the First Degree — after deliberation; Murder in the First Degree — felony murder; Kidnapping. Jurors did find him guilty of one count of false reporting to authorities. A status hearing has been set for 1:30 p.m. Monday," November 8.

Among the topics expected to be addressed at the hearing are Pankey's sentencing for failure to report, possible bond and the prospect of refiling the other charges against him. Prosecutors have not yet commented on their plans.
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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

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