We are purposely breaking this one into three parts, the first will cover the crime, the second covers the background of the alleged perpetrator up through his time living in Greeley, Co. The third part brings his story from the 1980s to the present and discusses his political campaigns and life in Idaho.
Here is Part 1: The Disappearance of Jonelle Matthews.
This story begins in Colorado but ends up in Idaho. In fact, the suspect in this case ran twice for Sheriff of Lincoln County, Idaho, once for Lieutenant Governor of Idaho, and was also on the Idaho Gubernatorial ballot in 2014. At the time of his arrest, he was actively campaigning for the office of Twin Falls County Sheriff. This is the strange story of a man named Steven Dana Pankey who was arrested in October of 2020, for the kidnapping and murder of 12 year old Jonelle Mathews over 35 years ago, in Greeley Colorado..
Sources for both parts of this story include: “People of the State of Colorado v Steven Dana Pankey: Indictment filed in the District Court, Weld County, Colorado”, A Medium.com article entitled, “The Candidate for Governor Who Killed a Child: What’s Wrong With Steve Pankey?” by Martina Petkova; Idaho’s KTVB News Interview from 10/13/2020; An article from the Greeley Tribune titled, “Jonelle Matthews disappearance anniversary: Timeline of events” published January 8, 2015; and an article in the Colorado Sun written by Carol Mckinley and published on 10/1/2019
Links to our sources, as well as additional links to information about this case can be found at the end of this post .
As I said, the story starts in Colorado. Specifically in a small town called Greeley which is about 50 miles away from the state capitol in Denver. In the early 80’s Greeley, like many towns across the US, was considered very safe. Kids would ride their bikes as far as they could go, even down dirt roads and past long stretches of farm land with few houses. They would do fundraisers for scouts or school and sell door to door all by themselves. Parents were not even thinking about their children being in danger of kidnapping or murder. It was a much more innocent time and I think that is important to say because often I hear podcasts where the hosts seem astounded that younger children were walking to the store alone, or left at home without supervision even for periods of time at night, or that the kids walked to and from school by themselves… many things that would be absolutely shocking today. The reality of the time was unless a child had been assaulted or gone missing from your own home town, you likely would not even hear about it. Only the most heinous crimes against children would make national news. But all that started to change around the time Jonelle Matthews went missing.
Jonelle Goes Missing
In 1984 Jonelle Matthews was 12 years old and living with her adopted parents in Greeley, CO. The Matthews family included mom Gloria, dad Jim, and another daughter named Jennifer. Jennifer was in high school and Jonelle was in middle school. On December 20, 1984, the family was in a few different places. Gloria was actually visiting her parents in California. Older sister Jennifer was playing in her high school basketball game, and their dad Jim was also at the basketball game. Jonelle’s school choir and was singing at a Christmas concert at a downtown bank. She went to her event with her middle school friend DeeAnn Ross and DeeAnn’s father Russ drove the girls home. Jonelle was dropped off in front of her home around 8:15 pm, and Mr. Ross waited while she went in and turned on the lights, letting him know she had made it safely inside. At 8:30 pm, Jonelle received a call from a friend of her father’s letting her know that her father would be returning home from the basketball game soon. At some point she also answered a call and took a written message for her father. Around 9:30 pm, Jim Matthews arrived home. He found the garage door partially open, and signs that Jonelle had been in the TV room. A space heater was turned on and her pillow was set up nearby. Jim looked around for Jonelle, but did not find her. He later told authorities that he thought maybe she had walked over to a neighbor’s house. By the time his other daughter, Jennifer arrived home around 10 pm, Jim was really worried. He asked Jennifer if she knew where Jonelle was but Jennifer said “no”. He called his pastor who was a close family friend and was advised to call the police which he did. By 10:15 pm, Greeley police were on the scene. The third detective to arrive was John Gates, who served for 25 years on the Greeley police force and is now the mayor. According to the Colorado Sun, Gates said “The minute I walked into their home, I thought that this was probably not a runaway”. He added “We walked the neighborhood. It was dark. Nobody in that neighborhood saw anything. It wasn’t long before we started thinking that this was probably not going to end well”.
A few of the things they found at the house which immediately heightened detective’s suspicion included footprints in the snow that indicated someone had been looking in the windows of the home. Jonelle’s pantyhose and shoes were also located in the house, placed where she would have likely put them after arriving home and as she was settling in to watch TV. It was a freezing night so it made no sense she would have ventured out barefoot or even in slippers.
Greeley police quickly organized a neighborhood canvass and search of all nearby areas. Unfortunately, this lead nowhere, and neither did extensive interviews. According to detectives they barely had any evidence to consider. There were no fingerprints, no witnesses and no tire tracks. And this was before DNA was even a consideration. The police quickly cleared her father, as well as her friend Deanne’s father, Russ Ross. As you may recall from earlier, Jonelle was adopted by the Matthews family. Sadly, while Jonelle’s birth mother did not even know who had adopted her baby, and had no idea about the Matthews or where they lived, the police identified her rather quickly and actually placed her under surveillance without her knowledge but nothing came of that either. Unfortunately, even though they worked tirelessly on this case, ultimately the Greeley police just did not have enough good leads. Jonelle seemed to have just vanished.
As time passed the fact that she was missing was reported all across Colorado and ultimately nationally. Her picture was one of the first to appear on a milk carton after a nationwide missing children’s campaign was prompted by the disappearance of Adam Walsh who had gone missing 3 years earlier. In March of 1985 then President Ronald Reagan mentioned Jonelle during a speech, the Sunday Denver Post mentioned her in an in-depth article about missing children and she appeared in the International Center for Unidentified and Missing Person’s database. However, nothing came of all the publicity. More than 8 years after she disappeared, the Matthews family had her declared legally dead. Sadly, a few years later, Jonelle’s birth mother, Terri Vierra-Martinez located the family and wrote a letter asking if she could visit Jonelle. Gloria said it was heartbreaking because this was something Jonelle had always wanted to have happen. Tragically, Gloria had to tell Terri that Jonelle was missing and had been declared dead. The case went cold for a very long time. Then, in 2018, Greeley police announced they had a cold case unit and one of the cases they were going to prioritize was Jonelle’s. They began re-interviewing people and trying to use whatever advances had been made in forensic science. (But, keep in mind, when she disappeared back in 1984, there was no such thing as attempting to collect DNA from a supposed crime scene). Around December of 2018 they also began inquiring about an Idaho man they were now calling a “person of interest”. Of course, this was Steven Dana Pankey.
A body is found in 2019
Then, a serious development occurred. In the late afternoon of Tuesday July 23, 2019, excavators who were installing a pipeline discovered human remains. The area in which they were digging was only about 15 miles southeast of Jonelle’s home and the remnants of clothing found with the remains seemed to match the description of what Jonelle was wearing the night she disappeared. Using DNA testing, the remains were positively identified as belonging to Jonelle Matthews. While the autopsy results had not yet been released, police did state that they believed she was the victim of homicide. Ultimately, after the autopsy, the coroner announced that she had been killed by a bullet to the head. There have been no reports of anything else found, in particular whether any foreign DNA was found.
Introducing and Indicting Steven Dana Pankey
A few months later on September 13, 2019, Greeley police announced that Steve Pankey, of Twin Falls Idaho, who was formerly a Greeley resident, was “the person of interest”. On October 9, 2020 a grand jury in the District Court, Weld County, Colorado indicted Steven Dana Pankey for the murder and kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews. The indictment lists 26 points that show how the kidnapping and murder was committed. I will summarize the points here.
- Numbers 1 through 4 essentially say that Steven Dana Panky kidnapped Jonelle from her home between 8:30 and 9:30 pm on 12/20/1984 and that he was armed with a gun and shot Jonelle intentionally after removing her from her home. Then there are points that list the evidence to support that:
- Steven Pankey was known to watch school children walk home from Franklin Middle School which is where Jonelle went to school.
- He demonstrated intimate familiarity with the neighborhood where Jonelle lived during an interview he gave (it does not say if it was a media source or a law enforcement interview) in March of 1985 when he stated that two police officers lived on the same block as the Matthews. This factors in later when we talk about what Pankey has been saying about the case since very shortly after Jonelle disappeared.
- He attended the same church as the Matthews, (however, everything I have found does seem to show that there were only a few weeks of cross over between when Pankey stopped attending and when the Matthews family joined that church)
- Steven Pankey knew of, and discussed, a crucial piece of evidence from the Matthews house that had been intentionally withheld from the public. Specifically, he seems to have known that a rake was used to obliterate shoe impressions in the snow.
- The indictment then uses 2 points to establish that Jonelle’s cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and the manner was homicide and that Steven Dana Pankey owned a firearm in 1984.
- Going on it states “Steven Dana Pankey 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.
- He filed pleadings in many cases, both civil and criminal, that contained both direct and veiled statements about Jonelle Matthews including in 1999 where he argued “it is reasonable for the appellant to believe he would get the death penalty for revealing the location of Jonelle Matthews body”. And, he wrote and stated many times “without a deal the Jonelle Matthews case will never be solved”. He also repeatedly told various authorities that he had information about the murder of Jonelle Matthews and he would only disclose it if he were given immunity.
- During an April, 2003 pro-se court pleading, he stated “the family should be informed that Jennell (sic) died before crossing 10th street and “not to give the family hope.”
It is worth noting here, this was not any kind of criminal proceeding against Steve Pankey. From what we can see, this was litigation filed by Mr. Pankey. So it was very odd to have referenced Jonelle Matthews at all.
- In a letter dated August 15, 2013 Pankey wrote: “about a week after the fact I realized a blanket, or comforter, or quilt also disappeared from the Matthews house… Some experiences are hard to forget.” And also in 2013 he sent an “alibi” document to law enforcement which contained false statements and superfluous details. His primary “alibi” seemed to be that he had been busy getting ready for a planned holiday trip to California and was leaving for that trip early in the morning the day after Jonelle was found to be missing.
- Angela Hicks (Steven Pankey’s wife at the time of the disappearance who he later divorced) contradicted her ex-husband by telling authorities that the family trip did not happen until 12/22/1984 (two full days after Jonelle’s disappearance) and that it was not planned, it was totally unexpected. She also stated that prior to this trip, Pankey had “dumped” their family dogs and they were never seen again. Further, on the drive home she said her then husband was uncharacteristically listening to the radio and searching for news about Jonelle. Then, when they finally got back home to Greeley he forced Angela to read him all the newspaper accounts about Jonelle. She also said that when they arrived home on 12/26/1984 Steve immediately began digging in their yard and then 2 days later a car on their property burst into flames and was later disposed of at a salvage yard and during a church service in 1985 Steven was muttering “false prophet” under his breath when the minister announced that Jonelle Matthews would be found safe and returned home.
- Angela Hicks also stated that much later, in 2008 when attending the funeral of Steve’s own murdered son, Pankey said “I hope God did not allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews” (Steve Pankey’s adult son was murdered by his girlfriend in Arizona).
- Getting a bit more bizarre, apparently in 1999 when they were living near Sun Valley Idaho, Pankey complained to her that the Sun Valley Police refused to believe that he had information related to Jonelle’s disappearance and that they would not give him immunity. When Angela looked at him confused, he stated “You don’t think I could have hurt her, do you? She looked just like you”
- Points 23 and 24 say that Steven Pankey repeatedly searched the internet for information about Jonelle Matthews (yikes, so have I) and that after the Greeley detectives contacted him in 2019, Pankey attempted to delete all evidence of those searches from his computer (not that I want to give advice to help criminals but everyone should be aware that you can never really get rid of anything you do online, or your text messages and so on).
- Finally, the last two points reveal that he lived only 2 miles from Jonelle’s home at the time of her disappearance and that he lived approximately 10 miles due north of where her body was recovered. I cannot tell if that was the same residence or if he lived by where her body was buried back in 1980 so this point was just to ensure the grand jury understood he had familiarity with that area as well.
As we mentioned earlier, the Grand Jury in Weld County Colorado absolutely voted a “true bill” for this indictment meaning it gave the prosecutors what they needed to arrest Steven Dana Pankey. He was arrested in Twin Falls, Idaho in October of 2020 and then extradited to Greeley Colorado where on December 9, 2020 a Greeley judge set Pankey’s bail at $5 million cash bond only.
So, who is Steven Pankey??? Is he as guilty as this indictment makes him seem? Or does he suffer from mental illness, some personality disorder or is he just super interested in this crime? In Part 2 you will find out.
Sources and other helpful links:
In Part 2, we have the story of Steven Pankey from his childhood up through the events surrounding the Jonelle Matthews case in Colorado.
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