December 20, 1984
Greeley, Colorado
12-year-old Jonelle Matthews is taken from her home; her body will remain undiscovered for nearly 35 years

Matthews was last seen on the night of December 20 after she sang Christmas carols with her school choir. She was taken home by a friend and the friend’s mother who watched Matthews walk into her house, though they noted the house’s garage door was ajar before their arrival. Matthews’ father returned home an hour later and found his daughter was missing.

Jonelle Matthews
via The Denver Post

There were no signs of struggle at the scene and few clues were left behind, causing investigation to slow and eventually grow cold. Matthews was officially declared dead in 1994 and a funeral service for her was held for her grieving friends and family. In the event that she may have still been alive, an entry with an age-progressed photo of Matthews was added to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The Windsor Beacon. February 7, 1985

On July 23, 2019, construction workers excavating a field for a pipeline east of La Salle, Colorado discovered Matthews’ skeletal remains. Her cause of death was determined to be a gunshot wound to her head. “Knowing she was murdered did give us some closure,” Matthews’ older sister Jennifer Mogensen told reporters.

That same year, Steven Pankey was named a person of interest in the case and his home searched. Pankey had been 33 at the time of Matthews’ disappearance, had lived a few miles from her home, and had attended the same church as her family, albeit at different times. Pankey had been a person of interest since the beginning of the investigation, according to his indictment, after he “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 also added Pankey had repeatedly asked for immunity in the case in exchange for information. One such piece of information he shared with investigators was that a rake had been used to conceal tracks in the snow following Matthews’ abduction.

Pankey has claimed the Greeley police have framed him for the crime due to his sexuality as a “celibate homosexual,” and has stated he is eager to tell his side of the story to clear his name. Pankey noted he voluntarily submitted his DNA to the police during the initial investigation. He also told The Times News that, on the day of Matthews’ disappearance, he and his family were preparing for a vacation to California and only learned of the disappearance after they had returned. “I never met Jonelle,” Pankey told reporters, “I never met her family, I didn’t know she existed or disappeared until Wednesday, December 26 [1984].” However, according to his indictment, his account regarding the trip to California “contained false statements and superfluous details.”

Pankey’s ex-wife, to whom he had been married at the time Matthews vanished, had also told investigators of several strange behaviors Pankey had exhibited around the time of the disappearance. She stated the trip to California had been unexpected, and on their way home Pankey “uncharacteristically listened to the radio, searching for news, accounts of Jonelle’s disappearance,” according to the indictment. She also mentioned that, during a church service a few months later, Pankey muttered, “False prophet,” in response to a minister telling the congregation Matthews would be found safe. And at the 2008 funeral for Pankey’s 20-year-old son Carl, who had been murdered, he was overheard saying, “‘I hope God didn’t allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews.’”

Pankey was arrested on October 12, 2020 and is currently awaiting trial.

“Ex-Idaho candidate appears in Colorado court in girl’s death.” The Spokesman-Review [Spokane, Washington]. November 1, 2020
Udell, Erin. “Jonelle Matthews case: Who is Steve Pankey?” Fort Collins Coloradoan. October 28, 2020
Pietsch, Bryan. “Man Charged With Murder in 1984 Killing of Colorado Girl Taken From Home.” The New York Times. October 13, 2020. Accessed: December 20, 2020.
Bradbury, Shelly. “Suspect indicted for murder in 1984 disappearance and death of Greeley’s Jonelle Matthews.” The Denver Post. October 13, 2020. Accessed: December 20, 2020.
Matthews, Mychel. “Twin Falls man says police framed him in 36-year-old Colorado murder case, he’ll testify before a grand jury.” Magic Valley. October 8, 2020. Accessed: December 20, 2020.
Brown, Ruth. “Pankey investigated in girl’s 1984 killing in Colorado.” Idaho Statesman. September 14, 2019“Body Found at Pipeline Site ID’d as 12-Year-Old Colorado Girl Who Vanished 34 Years Ago.” KTLA. July 25, 2019. Accessed: December 20, 2020.
Peters, Mike. “Greeley girl’s disappearance still a mystery after 25 years.” The Coloradoan [Fort Collins, Colorado]. January 2, 2010
“Missing girls’ parents meet to share tips.” The Daily Sentinel [Grand Junction, Colorado]. January 7, 1985

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