Decades Old Greeley Cold Case Ends in 2020 Arrest
Suspect in custody in relation toJonelle Matthews’ murder

by Jess Brovsky-Eaker
Jonelle Matthews

Jonelle Matthews’ sister, Jennifer Morgensen, said Steven Pankey’s arrest more than 30 years after Jonelle’s death was bittersweet for the family, according to an October 2020 Denver Post article. / LAW WEEK FILE

Jonelle Matthews’ 1984 disappearance baffled investigators for decades until her remains were found by a Weld County construction crew in 2019. A pattern of bizarre behavior led officials to arrest Idahoan and former gubernatorial candidate Steven Pankey in October 2020 for the murder.

Matthews went missing on Dec. 20, 1984, after performing a holiday concert that evening with her middle school choir. She returned to her home in Greeley after getting a ride from a friend. Police discovered that Matthews was in the home for some time before she disappeared, and had even answered the phone and took a message for her father shortly after 8:30 p.m.

Matthews’ father arrived home around 9:30 p.m., discovered her missing and called the police less than an hour later, after his oldest daughter came home. Police found the garage door was open and Matthews’ shoes and shawl were still inside. Police also found footprints in the snow at the windows, implying someone might have been looking in through the windows.

The case garnered national attention, and Matthews was mentioned by then-President Ronald Regan in a March 1985 speech. The case went cold for more than 30 years until Matthews’ body, with a gunshot wound to the head, was uncovered by pipeline excavation crews in 2019. Police arrested Pankey last year. Police had been investigating Pankey since 2018 after receiving numerous tips from his family members and statements from Pankey, himself, dating back as far as 1999.

When Matthews went missing, Pankey was a youth pastor at the Matthews’ church and lived nearby. While investigators acknowledged Pankey had made several attempts to speak with investigators about the Matthews case, they didn’t announce the former Idaho gubernatorial candidate was a person of interest in the case until 2019.

Pankey’s ex-wife told investigators the family left on an impromptu trip two days after the girl’s disappearance and not the following morning, as Pankey had told police. According to an October 2020 Denver Post article, Pankey’s ex-wife also made statements that Pankey’s behavior was unusual on the trip and that when they returned to Greeley, Pankey had been digging holes in their yard and one of their cars had burst into flames. Following Matthews’ disappearance, Pankey’s ex-wife told investigators that he obsessively followed news of her case on the radio and in newspapers, according to the Denver Post article.

Among other odd behaviors, Pankey reportedly called a minister a “false prophet” after he said Matthews would be found safe during a church service several months after she disappeared. According to the Denver Post article, Pankey reacted so strongly in that service that he had to be forcibly removed by other parishioners. In the Denver Post article, Pankey also reportedly said “I hope God didn’t allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews,” at his murdered son’s funeral in 2008.

9News in October 2020 reported that “Pankey knew of and discussed a crucial piece of evidence from the Matthews family home — the evidence was withheld from the public by law enforcement — specifically that a rake was used to ‘obliterate shoe impressions in the snow.’”

According to Idaho news outlet, Times-News, in October 2020, Pankey said police were framing him for the crime and that he was being unfairly targeted due to his sexual orientation, which he described as “celibate homosexual.” The New York Times in October 2020 reported that “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 said, adding that he had repeatedly asked for immunity in exchange for information.”

Pankey is currently awaiting extradition. His bond was set last month at $5 million, according to December 2020 coverage by the Colorado Sun.

This article appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.