The Only Woman On Idaho’s Death Row

This is the story of Robin Lee Row. 

Sources:  Court records from State of Idaho v Robin Lee Row, My Crime Library, a article by Charles Montaldo and the book “Deadly Confident” by Nancy Whitmore Poore. 

This is the tragic and terrible tale of a young mother whose life of crime includes everything from check fraud, embezzlement, and arson to murder-including filicide (a parent who murders their own child or children).

The Early Years

Robin Lee Cornellier was born on September 12, 1957 in Nashua, New Hampshire.  Her parents were 16 year old Virginia and 17 year old Charles Augustus Cornellier.  Robin was the oldest of 5 children.  The family was very poor.  Charles seemed to have difficulty working a steady job and was known to have violent alcoholic binges.  However, Robin always has maintained that she was very close with her father.  She claimed her mother was cold and distant, but that might have been due to Virginia having to work all the time to keep the family afloat.  

There were violent arguments in the home and also, there are allegations that a grandfather was sexually abusing Robin and at least one of her sisters.  In her early teens, Robin’s parents divorced which was a very difficult thing for Robin since she rarely saw her father after the split.  By age 14 she was pregnant and  her mother took her for an abortion.  2 years later, at age 16, she was pregnant again, according to her sister, the father was a boyfriend named Mitch.  This time Robin kept the pregnancy.  In 1974, she gave birth to a son she named, Keith Cornellier.  If Mitch was the father, he was never involved with Keith and it appears Robin was done with him before her son was born.  

About a year later in October of 1975, Robin had another baby who she named Kristina Mae. The father was not known.  In 1976, Robin’s father, Charles Augustus Cornellier was arrested and convicted of the murder of an antiques dealer during an attempted robbery.  According to the Nashua Telegraph Newspaper in an article dated January 27, 1976 “Charles Cornellier – age 35 was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to second degree murder in the June 25, 1975 slaying of the proprietor of the Teri Mortell Antiques shop in Brookline.  Mr. Mortell was shot 3 times when he struggled with Cornellier during a robbery.”  Robin’s father was incarcerated for life at New Hampshire State Prison.

The First Signs of Trouble

Around the same time as her father was sentenced to prison, Robin met a boy named Wayne Hamilton and they began to date.  Wayne was part of a little gang of young men who had a reputation for earning cash by committing petty crimes and also, setting fire to cars.  In 1976, one of the guys from the gang implicated both Robin and Wayne in the “arson for hire” car burning schemes.  Wayne ended up being given a choice to serve time in jail, or join the military.  He ended up enlisting in the marines and left the area.  Robin was not arrested.

Shortly after Wayne left in 1977, a fire mysteriously broke out in the apartment complex where Robin lived which forced her to have to move. There aren’t many details about this fire, just that we know it occurred where Robin lived and after the fire she and her two young children moved back in with her mother. 

On January 31, 1977 Robin’s daughter, Krystina was found dead in Robin’s bed.  She was 15 months old.  Robin claimed that she had left Krystina sleeping and gone downstairs for milk.  When she returned to her bedroom, the toddler was cold and not breathing.  Her death was attributed to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).  At that time, SIDS had only been an accepted term or cause of death for about 9 years, it wasn’t until much later that researchers understood how extremely rare it is for a child older than 12 months to die of SIDS. states that the majority of SIDS cases occur when infants are between 0 and 6 months old.  However, at the time when 15 month old Krystina was found unresponsive and could not be revived, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was less understood and no one really suspected anything was wrong when the coroner ruled the death “natural” likely caused by SIDS.

A few months after Krystina’s death, Robin’s boyfriend, Wayne was transferred to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The two became engaged and Robin moved down south with 3 year old Keith.  In March of 1977 she married Wayne and the little family moved into a mobile home off base.

The Second Fire We Know Of

It was in this mobile home where Robin experienced her second residential fire.  According to Wayne, a few weeks after their wedding, he was asleep in bed when a loud sound startled him.  He woke up to find flames shooting up from the dresser that sat next to the bedroom door.  Wayne was able to put the fire out, but he noticed Robin was not in their bed.  He found her sleeping on the couch.  He later said she had never done that before.  That fire was not reported to authorities.

Not long after that fire, Robin was arrested for writing bad checks.  She was convicted of forgery and given a 4-year sentence in North Carolina State Penitentiary.  By March 1978 she was out on parole, but Wayne was not interested in staying married. Robin moved back to New Hampshire with Keith.  It seems as if she failed to comply with the terms of her parole and at some point, a warrant was issued for her from the state of North Carolina.

“This Is Why You Should Have Life Insurance On Your Kids”

Back in New Hampshire, Robin rented a small apartment.  Her sister, Terry, had a young daughter and lived nearby.  She and Robin would trade watching each others’ kids and because of that, Robin had a key to Terry’s apartment.  One night, when Keith was 5 years old and staying with his Aunt Terry, a fire broke out.  Terry was awakened by the sound of her daughter and Keith screaming and found the apartment engulfed in flames.  Somehow, she managed to escape unharmed with both kids.  The fire was devastating. Terry was extremely lucky to have gotten all three of them out safely.  The fire department had difficulty identifying what caused the fire. Eventually they ruled it as accidental and possibly electrical.  According to Terry at one point when she was discussing the fire with her sister, Robin made a comment to the effect of “this is why you should have life insurance on your kids”.

Tragedy In California

In early 1980, Robin and then 6 year old Keith moved to California.  She had a friend who owned a little cabin in a place called Summerville which is in Northern California.  It is very remote, and mostly consists of cabins, a store and a little dive bar.  The nearest town is Pine Creek.  Today, it is known as New Pine Creek and as of the 2010 census it had a population of less than 100 permanent residents. Both Summerville and Pine Creek are located on the California Oregon border. The friend had offered Robin her cabin as a place where Robin and Keith could live free while Robin worked to establish herself. 

The cabin was a little two bedroom wood structure with very few amenities. On the night of June 19, 1980 Robin claimed she was woken up by her cat jumping on her face, and she found the cabin was on fire.  She barely escaped and she ran to the neighboring home and banged on the door yelling for help.   The neighbor ran to the burning cabin and heroically tried to find little Keith.  Robin told him that Keith was trapped in the bathroom.  The neighbor broke into the bathroom from outside the cabin, but could not find the boy.  Eventually, Robin told the man that Keith was actually in his bedroom.  The neighbor went to the front of the cabin but found the door was padlocked from the inside. Somehow he was able to get back inside and he crawled along the floor,  into Keith’s room and tried unsuccessfully to locate the little boy.  Unfortunately, he had to retreat due to the thick smoke and heat.  It was not until after the fire had been put out that the badly burned body of 6 year old Keith was found on the floor of his room.

Fire investigators found a portable electric heater in Keith’s room with a pile of clothes pushed up against it (this becomes significant as the story goes on). They noticed that the heater had its switch in the “on” position, even though Summerville, CA was experiencing 90 degree days and very warm nights.  Eventually the fire was ruled accidental with the likely cause being the heater igniting the clothing pile in Keith’s room.

Robin claimed she was in the hospital for several weeks due to smoke inhalation though there is no public record to verify that. What is on record is that she received $28,000 of insurance money for a policy she had taken out on Keith’s life.  Remember, this was in 1980, so if you account for inflation that is the equivalent of having a little over $88,000 of life insurance today– on a six year old boy!  Many people, including the local sheriff in Pine Creek were very suspicious of Robin, but with the fire ruled accidental, no one could be charged for the death of Keith Cornellier Hamilton.

Life Goes On

After she received the proceeds of the life insurance policy she had taken out on Keith, she bought a mobile home and a new car.  Apparently there were several strange fires that broke out around the mobile home park where she lived but nothing that was ruled criminal or that resulted in people being hurt. At some point, she moved into an apartment in Pine Creek where she got pregnant, and in December of 1981 she gave birth to a son she named Joshua. Around this same time, she reported her car stolen and it was found totally burned.  Robin collected an insurance payment for the loss of the car.  In 1982 she was arrested again for financial crimes.  This time it was embezzling from her employer.  She pleaded guilty to grand theft and was sentenced to CA state prison for 3 years.  Some friends in the area took care of Joshua while Robin was in prison.  After 9 months, she was released on probation.   She stayed in the Pine Creek area and got pregnant again, this time with a daughter who she named Tabitha.  There were ongoing disputes about the paternity of both Joshua and Tabitha, but Robin did collect child support from a few different men, though she eventually left California and the men were no longer involved in any of their lives.

By this point in her life, Robin Cornellier had been involved either directly or indirectly with 4 residential fires and a handful of automobile fires.  In most of those cases, she stood to benefit. She also had 2 children die while in her care and she had been in prison twice.

The Story Continues In Idaho

In the summer of 1987 Robin decided it was time to leave Northern CA.   She did so in a very unreliable car, with very little money and her two kids in tow.  There were a few allegations of other fraudulent activities that had happened back in CA so it seems like she may have been fleeing.  Apparently, the car she was driving got them as far as Reno, NV and then broke down.  At that point, she used the money she had left and bought bus tickets to Boise, Idaho.  She later said she had never even heard of Boise before.   When Robin, Joshua and Tabitha got off the bus in Boise, it was  August of 1987 and she was close to penniless.  She ended up finding a shelter, and then some charitable organizations and ultimately the YWCA. (Young Women’s Christian Association) and with their assistance, she was able to get herself and the kids a place to live and ultimately she ended up working for the Y. She was actually well regarded and seemed to do a good job and rose to the ranks of managing one of the YWCA locations.  

In March of 1988, Robin met 31 year old Randy Row.  Two and a half months after meeting, they were married.  Robin, Tabitha and Joshua moved in with Randy and ultimately they ended up renting a duplex together.

During the time Robin worked at the YWCA, an interesting event occurred. In the early morning one day in the fall of 1989, a fire broke out in the basement of the Y. Fortunately no one was hurt. Investigators concluded it was clearly an arson fire and they found a pile of clothing that seemed out of place and a small electric heater that was switched on. Both things seemed out of place, however, it was determined the heater was not the cause of the fire.  The fire had originated in a corner of the room where it was likely ignited with an accelerant.   Robin was not suspected of anything at the time, but she did collect a small amount of insurance compensation for Christmas presents she claimed she had stored in the basement and that were destroyed in the fire. 

Randy had a bad accident on his motorcycle in 1989. He ended up with serious disabilities and was completely unable to work. This left Robin as the family wage earner. Randy stayed home and took on the responsibility of caring for the children. In February of 1991 Robin was promoted again to Manager of the YWCA’s bingo operation.  It was pretty successful when it launched but by February of 1992, the game was losing money and Robin was told they would be shutting down the Bingo center, and doing an audit of the financial records.

A Horrible Tragedy At The Row House

Shortly after Robin heard this news, there was a disaster at the Row home. In the early morning hours of Monday February 10, 1992 a fire raged in their duplex located at 10489 Seneca Drive, in Boise Idaho.  The fire killed Robin’s husband Randy and her two children Joshua Cornellier age 10 and Tabitha Cornellier age 8.  Robin was not home when the fire broke out.  She had been spending the weekend at a friend’s house. 

According to the book, Deadly Confidant by Nancy Whitmore Poore, on the night of February 09, 2002 Robin Row had been asleep on the couch at her best friend Joan McHugh’s house. She woke up in the middle of the night filled full of dread and an overwhelming feeling something was wrong. She said she first tried to shake the feeling by doing ordinary things to distract herself.  She did some laundry, took a shower, and got dressed, but around 5:00 am when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she woke Joan and said “I know something is wrong.  I have had this premonition all night nagging me to go home”.  She asked Joan to go with her to the duplex Robin and her husband Randy rented.  Joan said “yes”.

At that time Robin was not a stranger to spending the night on the couch at Joan’s house.  She told various people she had been having trouble with her husband.  Joan was a good friend and offered Robin a place to stay when things got difficult. Robin’s children, Tabitha age 8 and Joshua age 10 preferred to stay home with their step-dad.  He had been good to them and Robin did not want to disrupt their routine even if she needed a break from Randy.  She had confided in Joan that Randy was emotionally and physically abusive to her.  But, she said he was always loving towards the kids, and when she told them she was going to go stay with Joan, the kids had asked if they could stay home with Randy.   Robin said she was fine with that and she proceeded to the McHugh home for the weekend.  Joan would later disclose that things had been very acrimonious between Robin and Randy. Robin gave Joan the impression that she was “fleeing” a bad situation. Randy underscored that by calling the McHugh home several times while Robin was there and when he reached the McHughs or the answering machine he would relay angry and threatening messages while demanding that Robin return home.

After Robin woke Joan around 5:30 on Monday morning, February 10th, the two women jumped into Robin’s car and drove to the duplex.  As they stopped at an intersection on Robin’s street, they saw flashing lights, and were approached by a police officer who told them they could not go down the street.   Robin became very agitated and started to scream, “That’s my house, my family is in there!  There’s something wrong at my house.”  Joan later told people that Robin actually said the house “might be on fire” before either of them could have possibly seen anything that would indicate there was a fire.  Yet, after they parked the car and followed the officer on foot, Joan was completely shocked to see that the house was actually engulfed in flames.  Robin started to run towards the fire but she was restrained by first responders and just started wailing “My children”, “My children”…before she went into what Joan thought must have been shock and became silent.

Unfortunately, it turned out Robin’s early morning premonition was right.  Her 10 year old son Joshua was the first pulled from the house.  His little dead body was covered with a plastic sheet and laid out on the lawn.  The next body to be removed from the burning structure was Randy Row. There was some initial confusion that led firefighters to believe that possibly Robin’s daughter Tabitha had been spared.  Firemen had searched her room and she was not there, but then Robin remembered that Tabitha would often go into Robin’s bedroom and curl up on the floor.  She relayed that information to the fire fighters and that is ultimately where they found Tabitha’s body.  All three members of the household who had been home that night died from smoke inhalation.  The cause of the fire appeared to be very suspicious and was immediately assumed to be arson.

According to an article published by Charles Montaldo on, the fire  appeared to have been ignited in two places on the first floor of the two-story apartment.  The primary fire started where the apartment opened to the garage.  The second fire started in one or more piles of clothes that were in the living room.  There was also a space heater near a pile of laundry in that room.   That’s right, piles of clothing and a space heater!  The fire investigator reported that an undetermined flammable liquid was used as an accelerant.  Various sources reported that the duplex’s smoke alarms had been disabled by someone flipping off the circuit switch that tied to them.  Further, it was noted that the furnace fan was set to run continuously. This was especially strange being that it was during winter in Boise, Idaho where the average night low temperature is around 28 degrees.  What is interesting to note though, is someone familiar with fires might know that having that fan running would speed up the circulation of deadly fumes throughout the residence.

The Investigation

Boise is in ADA county.  So the ADA county sheriff’s office was the primary investigative agency.  Chief Investigator Gary Raney was assigned to the case.  It did not take him long to focus on Robin Row as his primary suspect.  As any true crime follower knows, the surviving spouse is always the first suspect, not to mention Robin’s very convenient absence from her own home on the night this tragedy unfolded, but when Sheriff Raney did some digging into Robin’s past, he knew he was really on the right track.  

During his investigation into the townhouse arson and murders of Randy, Joshua and Tabitha, Raney quickly discovered that Robin was supposedly in possession of an amount of cash from the bingo games that she had brought home due to it being a weekend and was to have deposited that Monday, February 10. When she was asked about this after the fire, Robin claimed the cash had been destroyed when the duplex burnt down.

Due to her history, especially the loss of another child in a suspicious fire, and other things that had been observed and reported  – Sheriff’s Investigator Raney was able to get search warrants for the remains of the duplex, for Robin’s car, her friend Joan McHugh’s residence and also, for a storage facility Robin had rented.  According to an article on “My Crime” called “Robin Lee Row Other News” during those searches, police discovered 6 insurance policies carried by Row on the lives of her now dead husband and two children.  The most recent policy had been taken out just 17 days before the fire.  The policies totaled $276,500. Robin Lee Row was the sole beneficiary.  To put that in perspective, that would be equivalent to nearly $475,000 today. 

When searching her storage facility, the investigators found that it only held Robin’s clothing, newer looking furniture, and some of Robin’s memorabilia. It also held fragile possessions that clearly belonged to Robin and had been wrapped in a newspaper dated February 7, 1992. Just 3 days before the fire. Investigators also found the missing cash and bingo cards from the game at the YWCA.   Nothing of Randy’s or the children’s was found there.

At this point, Raney felt he knew what had happened.  This woman had a history of collecting money after mysterious fires, and clearly she was suspected in the death of her son Keith.  In early 1990 there was much more awareness of SIDs and the age range for the infants affected, so she was looking suspicious for little Krystina’s death too.   Between the life insurance and the fact that she had only removed her own things from the duplex and put them in storage, it seemed like an open-and-shut case.   However, there was literally no direct evidence.    Where were her fingerprints, or DNA, or proof that she had purchased an accelerant?  Could they show she had singe marks on her skin?  No they could not.  And, it seemed she had an alibi.  She was at the McHugh house all night on Sunday February 9… Or was she?  It became very important for Investigator Raney to find out exactly where Robin Lee Row was during the critical time frame in which the fire had been started. 

The arson investigators had concluded that the fire had been intentionally set downstairs with a flammable substance that likely burned slowly before igniting a much hotter burning petroleum product.  With its slow ignition there would have been time for someone to leave the McHugh house, drive to the duplex, start the fire, and get back to the McHugh house even before anyone noticed the blaze.  Especially since the smoke detectors had been disabled.

Raney had a lot of circumstantial evidence regarding the arson and murders, but nothing else.  He continued to interview Robin who seemed cooperative and almost eager to talk.  The book “ Deadly Confident” has some chapters where the author has transcribed those interviews.  Sheriff Raney was also working on Robin’s best friend, Joan McHugh.

An Arrest

While they did not have enough to arrest Robin for arson and murder,  law enforcement officials realized they did have enough hard evidence to arrest and charge her with grand theft for the stolen YWCA money and other financial crimes against her employer.  On February 13, 1992 she was booked into the Ada county jail.

While in jail, Robin was in frequent communication with her friend, and alibi witness, Joan McHugh.  Investigator Raney questioned Joan, but she was firmly on Robin’s side.  She was indignant that the police would even approach her with their suspicions.  Joan was convinced that Randy was most likely the culprit.  Robin had told Joan about Randy’s violent erratic behavior and threats he had made and Joan had actually been on the receiving end of angry phone calls from Randy when Robin was at her house. Joan, her husband Bernie and her son John all believed Randy had set the fire to punish Robin for leaving him. 

Speaking of Joan’s son, another thing that investigators uncovered was in the weeks leading up to the fire, Robin had started a sexual affair with Joan’s adult son, John Blackwell.  Robin appears to have been very smitten with John, though he was reported to have told people that to him it was just sex and nothing romantic. While she was in jail, Robin made several calls to him and wrote many letters showing her infatuation with him.

From her statements to the investigators, it seemed all Joan knew for sure was that Robin was asleep on her couch until she woke up with that bad premonition. Joan was adamant that Robin could not have started the fire.  However, during a conversation with Sheriff’s Investigator Raney, Joan was made aware of the large dollar amount of the life insurance policies and also the fact that the last policy was taken out just 17 days before the fire. This did not immediately make Joan believe Robin was guilty, but it gave her enough doubt that she agreed to use a device to record her next conversation with Robin whenever Robin called her from the county jail.

According to the book Deadly Confident, Joan sort of talked herself into recording the calls thinking she would be able to prove Robin’s innocence. Joan badly wanted to believe her friend would have a good explanation for the things the sheriff’s investigator had pointed out as suspicious.   Raney suggested that Joan make up a story to really test Robin’s alibi.  He told Joan to tell Robin that she (Joan) had woken up in the early morning hours of February 10, went downstairs and found that Robin wasn’t there.  Raney explained if Robin was innocent, then she would reply “what are you talking about, you must be crazy, I was right on that couch asleep”.  Or, give some other very plausible explanation, but, if Robin made some excuse about why she wasn’t downstairs, then that would certainly indicate guilt.

In her next phone conversation with Robin, Joan followed Raney’s suggestion. Unfortunately for Joan, Robin did not prove her innocence.  When confronted with Joan’s lie about going downstairs and not seeing Robin anywhere during that critical time period, Robin hesitated and then told Joan she could not remember where she was.  

More Serious Charges

By March 20, 1992, the deputy prosecuting attorney signed a criminal complaint to charge Robin with 3 counts of first degree felony murder and one count of aggravated arson and a judge issued a warrant for her arrest.   When she learned she was being charged with felony murder, Robin called Joan and told her that she remembered where she had been during the early morning hours when the fire started.  She said she was actually outside the McHugh home talking to her psychiatrist.  In another call later the same day, Joan pressed Robin for the name of the psychiatrist, but Robin refused to tell her anything more.  And, at this point, Joan McHugh realized that her friend was very likely a cold blooded murderer. In her complete devastation,  she told Robin that she was working with Sheriff’s Investigator Raney at which point Robin stopped talking to her altogether. 

The trial of Robin Lee Row was held from late January to early March of 1993.  Her defense tried their best to throw suspicion at Randy, and even hinted that it was possible Joan’s son John could have started the fire. The prosecution had a large number of witnesses who contradicted most of the claims made by the defense. The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts. 

How We Got To The Death Sentence

Robin’s sentencing hearing began on October 19, 1993.  The state was seeking the death penalty.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found that four statutory aggravating circumstances had been proven by the evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt.  They have to prove these aggravating circumstances to justify a death sentence.  The first few circumstances were that Robin had committed multiple murders at the same time, the murders were committed during an arson, and they were accompanied by a specific intent to kill.  Then additional circumstances were that the murders were committed for financial gain and finally as stated in the transcripts “Row exhibited an utter disregard for human life”. 

On the side of the defense, they needed to prove “Mitigating” factors to try to prevent the judge from imposing a death sentence.  The court acknowledged there were some proven facts in mitigation.  They found that “Robin had endured a difficult and abusive childhood, had shown some responsibility in the past, did not have an extensive record of violent crimes, was involved in a mutually abusive relationship with Randy, and suffered from various mental, psychological and personality problems.” 

According to the book “Deadly Confident” at some point during the sentencing hearing, Robin was allowed to give testimony and at that time she admitted to finally regaining memory of the events of February 10, 1992.  She claimed things had been so traumatic that she initially believed she was innocent of the crimes, but that after interviews and hypnosis she realized she was involved and had just been blocking it out.  In the book, she is quoted as saying “I was at Joan McHughs house and I was very agitated and desperate to get out of a bad marriage… I drove out to the house that evening; I don’t remember times, I think it was 3:00 or 3:30, something like that.  The facts I recall are different than what testimony was presented….The house was not intended to burn down.  It was just intended to do some structural damage, enough that we would have to have left.  The children and I would go to Joan’s and Randy, I assume would go to his family… And I felt this was the only way to get him out of my life.  After the fire was set, I went back to Joan’s house.”  There is some dispute as to why she said these things.  It is possible that she believed some form of admission might lead to a more favorable sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty.  However, neither the mitigating factors or her admission helped.  On December 16, 1993, Robin Lee Row was sentenced to death for the 3 murder convictions and she was given twenty years for the aggravated arson charge.  

Later, when she had different attorneys and was filing various appeals, Robin retracted the statement she made during the sentencing hearing.  Her explanation was that back then, during the hearing, she just wanted to die so she thought, “ this would be the fastest way to make that happen”.  In fact, on January 8, 2010 the blog “Women Condemned” where true crime author Kelly Banaski posted this from Robin Lee Row: “I know most of you think everyone on death row claims to be innocent. In my case, it’s true! . . . I couldn’t leave behind the legacy that if I died everyone would think the children’s mother killed them. I wanted to die when I heard my children were dead. The pain I felt was excruciating. It was as if my heart had been ripped out of my chest and stomped on, tearing it to shreds. . . At first memories would come rushing back through my mind and they were so hard to handle. A commercial would remind me of my son or I’d hear a song that was my daughter’s favorite. All over I’d see them or think of them. The agony was unbearable. . .I’m tired. Emotionally drained. I’m lonely. Living in isolation is a hard thing. I wanted out and saw execution as a way out.”

Regardless of what is true, if she was hoping for a quick death, she didn’t get it. As of January 2021 Robin Lee Row is still incarcerated on Idaho’s death row at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pocatello. Idaho.  An Associated Press article published on February 2, 2019, states she currently has an appeal pending in Idaho’s US District Court so there is no date set for an execution.  

Steven Pankey Part 1

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 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 .  

Greeley Colorado

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”.  

The Investigation

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. 

National Headlines

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:,head%2C%20according%20to%20the%20indictment.


Good Story Worth Watching

In Part 2, we have the story of Steven Pankey from his childhood up through the events surrounding the Jonelle Matthews case in Colorado.

Steven Pankey Part 2

Part 1 ended with the 2020 arrest and the most recent hearing this year which resulted in a large cash bail amount set and upheld for Steven Dana Pankey after the remains of Jonelle Matthews were found near where she was kidnapped in Greeley, Colorado.  Pankey’s arrest came more than 35 years after the 12 year old girl disappeared.

Now, we are going to do our best to walk you through the odd life and strange times of Steven Pankey.  

His Childhood

Steven Dana Pankey was born in 1951 in Ventura, CA.  According to his own website, his father was a Youth For Christ Leader.  He doesn’t talk much about his mother, but generally gives the impression that he was raised in a very religious family. His father was dedicated to his work, gave little attention to his children and taught “Traditional 1950’s Christian Liberty minded core values”.  According to,  “Pankey was a conservative christian who descended from a line of men in positions of authority.  His great-grandfather was B.F. Pankey, lieutenant governor of New Mexico.  His grandfather was an evangelist and served as pastor of Greeley Colorado’s Bethel Baptist Church in the 1940’s.  His father followed suit and also became a minister”.  In his interview with Idaho’s KTVB Channel 7, Steve said that his family has ” a long history of homosexuals and hellfire Brimstone Baptists” which clearly caused a divide.  He also claims that in 1956, he had an uncle that was arrested on a consensual homosexual charge and was subsequently killed in police custody.  Steve also begins that same interview announcing he himself “used to be in a gay lifestyle”.  

I just want to say, there is a reason we are pointing out all of Steven Pankey’s references to homosexuality and even religion. It comes into play a lot when he is telling stories to various sources about what he thinks happened to Jonelle Matthews and why he has behaved in ways some would find suspicious. I want to emphasize that we are only discussing these aspects of Pankey’s life because he himself puts a big focus on them. We absolutely support his lifestyle of choice in any capacity so please don’t think we are religion bashing or prejudiced about his sexuality or anything else.

According to the Greeley Tribune, Pankey graduated from La Puente Alternative High School in Southern CA and then enlisted in the US Army in 1975.  He was discharged one year later in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  In the KTVB interview he says that after his discharge, he “left the gay lifestyle” and “repented that”, later on one of his websites he states he was “honorably discharged by the Army for homosexuality“.  However, I looked it up and it appears that being discovered as gay would have lead to either a “general” discharge if no homosexual acts had occurred, or if they had, his discharge would likely have been an “undesirable” discharge.  I only point this out because as you will see, Steve Pankey has a pattern of embellishing stories and sometimes just outright lying.

Greeley, Colorado

By 1976, he was living in Greeley, Colorado and employed as a security guard at the Northern Colorado Detective Agency.  He had complaints filed against him by two students who were 15 and 16 years old.  They told authorities that Pankey maced them in a tunnel after they refused to show him their hands.  Pankey countered that it was in self defense.  During that same time period, he also experienced some money troubles, and had a local trailer park owner file action against him for harassment and death threats.  Pankey claims that around this time, he graduated from Aims Community College in Greeley, with a minor in Criminal Justice.  Media sources have yet to confirm if this is actually true. 

By December of 1976, Pankey was working as a car salesman for Edwards Chevrolet.  He claimed in various press interviews that in 1977 after he had given up his “gay lifestyle” he was a Youth Pastor at the Sunny View Church in Greeley. It is worth noting that the church itself has disputed that Steve was actually a Youth Pastor.  However, it can be confirmed that he was a member of the church and during that time he was dating a woman who was a fellow Sunny View Church choir member.  Steve told KTVB that he got her pregnant and that she went to Europe to get an abortion.  He also said that when he found out about the abortion he threatened to tell the church about it.  On September 24, 1977 the woman accused Pankey of raping her.  This is verified by court records.  Pankey implies she only did this in retaliation for his threat to disclose her abortion. In November of that year, the case was dropped. According to one article it was after Pankey filed a suit against her. According to Steve, in an interview he did with Unfound in 2019, he took a lie detector test and passed, but she refused the test so authorities dropped the case.  He said in a later interview, “It was consensual sex, but that was 1977 so when you’re the youth pastor and you get accused of date-rape, I’ll tell you you’re no longer youth pastor and you’re not wanted in that church so I was out of there”.

Even though he claims he left the church after the rape accusation, in May of 1978, Pankey reported that he was assaulted while attending the church.  A member of the congregation told police that Pankey had disrupted choir practice even though he was no longer a member of the choir.  Records do show that he attended Sunnyview Church until about June of 1978.  He later wrote in an open letter to the public, “shortly after the date rape charge, I was given privileged information regarding disturbing intentions relating to SunnyView Church of the Nazarene members.  He also said, “In 1978, church members became Jonelle Matthews’ trusted adults”.  (You will want to put a pin in that as it does come back later in his story.)

Some other controversial incidents from around that time included several run-ins with people of authority where he accused them of conspiring against or trying to undermine him. In 1978 Pankey became employed by the local 7-Up Bottling Company.  In 1979 when Pankey was married and his wife was pregnant with their first child,  he accused then Greeley Police Officer, now Greeley mayor – John Gates (who we talked about in part 1) of trying to get him fired.  Basically, Pankey claimed that Gates had told 7-Up management that Steven Pankey had a “homosexual history” and that he had been accused of rape.  In another bizarre tie to people who we talked about in Part 1, Steve’s area manager and later sales manager at 7-Up was Russ Ross (remember, Jonelle’s friends’ father who drove her home the night she went missing?).  According to Steve, because he had joined a union and was encouraging other employees to join as well, Russ Ross retaliated by cutting his routes and treating him poorly.  Pankey filed a lawsuit with the National Labor Relations Board in June of 1980, which he actually won.  In his public letter from 2019, Pankey wrote that at 7-UP Ross was his “abusive supervisor” and he also said that both John Gates and Russ Ross had been out to get him the entire time he was in Greeley. 

He Keeps Getting Into Trouble

Still in Greeley back in the early 80’s Steve continued to get in trouble or be associated with it.  In 1982 he got in an argument with some people in front of the K-mart store and was ordered to pay the store $15 in restitution – of course that would be more like $40 today (this is my very personal shout out to Karen and Georgia from MFM ).  Not that either amount seems like a huge punishment.  Two years later, in 1983,  there were harassment complaints filed between Steve and some family members.  His Aunt wrote in her complaint that Pankey had stalked her by following her around town and calling repeatedly.  On one day, she said he called 58 times. He was again accused of similar behavior including making repeated phone calls in April of 1984. In that complaint a woman gave a statement in connection with the dispute saying her parents had let Pankey live with them, and at that time, when she was just a teenager, he had tried raping her.  She also mentioned that Pankey had stayed at mental hospitals in the past.  Apparently Steve was not convicted in any of these cases.

It is worth noting that this man has had a history of strange behavior and run-ins with the law.  Whether or not it could be considered attention seeking, or part of a deeper mental health issue I don’t know.  What I do know is that in December of 1984, when Jonelle Matthews went missing, Steven Pankey was living with his wife, Angela Hicks and their young child in a house that was only 2 miles away from the Matthews home.  He also had a used car dealer’s license and had been selling cars from his property at that residence, (I am noting this because as you will see later there will be some theories about how having the used cars on his property could have aided him in concealing a body) Steve verified he did have a few used cars left in December of 1984, though he was in the process of closing that operation.

December 20, 1984

So, now let’s get to Steve’s story regarding what happened on the night Jonelle Matthews’ disappeared and during the following weeks. Much of this is paraphrased from the KTVB interview he gave in October of 2020.  

In the interview he says on the night of December 20, 1984  he was home with his then-wife and 5 year old son.  Their car was parked in their driveway and packed nearly full as they were scheduled to leave for Big Bear Lake in California early in the morning.   Because his wife and son went to bed early,  Steve said that he had no radio or television on.  As he was getting ready to head to bed, he looked out a front facing window and saw an unmarked sheriff’s car and a pick up truck pulling down his driveway.  Because he had multiple problems with local law enforcement, his first thought was “great, here comes another arbitrary charge”.  But then they turned around to leave.  Before driving away, the cars flashed their lights towards Pankey’s house and also toward the house next door.  Pankey says he thought nothing more about it and he went to bed.  At around 3 or 4 in the morning, his family woke up and got into the car for their road trip.  Because it was so early, his wife and son were sleeping so he left the car radio off.  The family enjoyed their holiday in California and drove back arriving home on December 26.  He is adamant that he did not know a little girl had gone missing from Greeley until the next day, December 27.

A Strange Story Is Told

His story of how he found out Jonelle was missing goes as follows.  On December 27th, (the day after he got back from California)  Steve’s father-in-law came over and because Steve was not on speaking terms with him, he was caught off guard by the visit.  His father-in-law happened to be a groundskeeper at the local cemetery and on that day, he told Steve that some days prior, a local cop had come to him and said that he had a body that needed to be buried in a casket and that it would look bad for Steve, so could the father-in-law help.  Steve thought this story was really weird but because he felt harassed and disliked by local law enforcement he wanted to do a little sleuthing around to be sure he was not being set up.  He checked all over his own property and also checked the area where he saw the sheriff’s car flashing lights on December 20.  He did not find anything.  His father-in-law never said whether this body was a man, woman or child, but Steve got a newspaper and the only thing he saw was the news about Jonelle Matthews being missing.

( A little side note here, in this interview, which I really encourage you to watch, he is talking about first finding out about Jonelle Matthews 6-7 days after she went missing.  But what actually says is  “I got a copy of the newspaper and the Jonelle Matthews thing was all over it and was the only murder in the area at that time”   You can see him catch himself and then stumble a bit trying to find the right words.   He regroups and says “uh disappearance” and then he stammers a little more before getting back on track with his story.  Obviously there was no way he could have known she was murdered back on December 27 of 1984 unless he had been involved, but by the time he did this interview in 2020, it was public knowledge that her murdered body had been found so maybe it was just an honest mistake…  I just found his mannerisms after he said murder really seemed suspicious) 

The long and the short of this is that he ultimately claims that because he had such a bad relationship with the Greeley police, he reached out to the Fort Collins, Colorado FBI office and left a message saying that he thought he might have information relevant to the Jonelle Matthews case.  The FBI set up a meeting with him that took place at the Greeley police station.  Steve would not speak with Greeley detectives but he relayed his story about what his father-in-law had said to the FBI agents.  He also said that he told the FBI that he, Steve Pankey, knew that Russ Ross and his daughter were the last people to see Jonelle and that Ross had it out for Steve because he had won a labor relations lawsuit against him.  He ended his conversation saying that was all he knew about the Jonelle Matthews disappearance.  To be clear, there is nothing released to the public that would verify whether or not the conversation with the FBI ever happened, nor if the conversation about a cop needing to bury a body ever happened.  I am just relaying Steven Pankey’s version of events and there will be more of his story in Part 3.

In Part 3, we have links to a few podcasts that have covered this case. These podcasts had Steven Dana Pankey as a Patreon supporter!

Steven Pankey Part 3

Part 2 ended with Steven Pankey contacting the FBI and relaying his story about how his father in law had been approached by a cop to bury a body around the time that Jonelle Matthews disappeared. We left Steve, still living in Greeley Colorado with his wife and son in 1984.

Getting Out of Colorado

Now, it is a bit difficult to find much more about Steve Pankey until 1989, however, in his interview with Unfound (linked at the end of this post) they left Colorado in 1986. He actually says he wanted to move because “in 1986 Angie was pregnant with the second child. And at that point, it was a few years later (from the Jonelle Matthews disappearance) so you can assume the child is no longer alive so I did not feel overly safe with my kids there”. He ended up moving them to Texas, then Oklahoma where he says “Carl was born and we wanted Christians to deliver our second child then we moved to Hot Springs Arkansas, then to Big Bear Lake, CA to be near my folks, then Portland Oregon, where I was going to formerly go to mortuary school but that did not work out”.

Arriving in Idaho and Writing a Book

In 1989 he and his family moved to Ketchum, Idaho. Just to give geographical context Ketchum is at the North End of Blaine County Idaho.  Blaine county encompasses the well known high-end resort area of Sun Valley and also the cities of Hailey and Bellevue in Southern Central Idaho.   It’s actually a really beautiful area, one of my personal favorite places to visit, ski and fish in Idaho. Steve claims that when they arrived in 1989 he was working for a mortuary. It is possible, but we cannot verify that. In the mid 1990’s he was definitely working in property management for a company in Sun Valley.   In 1993 he wrote and self-published a book called “Graveyards:  The Untold Story”.  This book contained autobiographical elements.  Places are real and in several cases he uses actual people’s names, in others he just uses very similar names. The protagonist, which he named “David Darkson”. is absolutely based on himself.  To summarize the plot; James T. Christy, the pastor of  Sunny View Church in Greeley Colorado (yep he uses the real names and location) heads up a secret society called the “Inner Circle” which is comprised of other pastors and church leaders who commit “rape-murders”.  Do you recall when I told you to put a pin in his statement about “the church members became Jonelle’s trusted adults”?  It seems like with this book, he is trying to put forth a theory as to who might have abducted the girl and why.  It seems like Pankey was super fascinated with this case, or to some observers he comes across as a perpetrator who is delighting in showing superiority over the “ignorant police” Either way, in the book, the Inner Circle tries to recruit the main character, but Darkson exposes them instead.  

So, in case I have not been clear enough or more likely there has been so much to digest here – you may not recall but at this point, Steve Pankey has pointed somewhat suggestively to Russ Ross as a possible perpetrator (Ross was a prominent member of the church, but cleared by the police early on in the investigation) and far more directly to a “cop” being involved in the kidnapping and some late night request to get help disposing of a body (and he has not been subtle mentioning John Gates specifically)  and now with his book, he is making not really veiled references to a secret evil society of murdering rapists at the local Greeley church.

What Does Jon Benet Ramsey Have To Do With It?

In another strange story, Pankey claims that around 1997 he was contacted again by the FBI. This time, he says it was either related to, or spurred on by, the death of Jon Benet Ramsey. In his own words he states, “In December of 1996 Jon Benet Ramsey made international news dying in her house in Boulder, CO that grew attention back to the Jonelle Matthews case because they were both Colorado, they were both young girls, they were both Christmas time and it caused police to want to interview me again and I refused to talk to them”.

A little later he says he was in a bank in Sun Valley Idaho and he “accidentally vomited in the bank”. According to Steve, he was arrested for disturbing the peace and ended up getting convicted and spending 10 days in jail. His explanation for how a simple act of throwing up in a bank could result in criminal charges and jail time was that one of the tellers in the bank was married to a police officer and they were retaliating against him for refusing to talk to police after the Jon Benet Ramsey murder.

An Interesting Statement on Record

Over time he has filed many criminal and civil pleadings.  In 1999 he wrote an argument that included the statement “in case of certain rulings by the court, it is reasonable for appellant to believe he would get the death penalty for revealing the location of Jonelle Matthews body”.  He was the appellant.  Keep in mind, this means he filed a case against someone else. This was not a criminal proceeding against him. In another filing in 2002 he said “the family should be informed that Jonelle died before crossing 10th st. and not to give the family hope” and that “without a deal, this case will never be solved”.  Incidentally, he repeatedly makes this statement in various interviews or public statements throughout the years.  He repeatedly references that a deal needs to be made.

Present At Another High Profile Murder Scene

In September of 2003, Steven Pankey was present at the crime scene of a very high profile Idaho murder case which we will cover at some point.   It’s the case of then teenaged Sarah Johnson who was convicted of murder and given two life sentences for the shooting deaths of her parents. Alan and Diane Johnson were murdered in the home they shared with Sarah in Bellevue Idaho on September 2, 2003.  Pankey later stated in affidavits that he was the deputy coroner for Blaine County and also that he was an apprentice mortician’s assistant.  The coroner’s office confirmed that Pankey was in training as a mortician for Wood River Chapel in Hailey at the time, but they deny that he was a “deputy coroner”.  Russell Mikel who was Blaine County’s Coroner at that time said that Pankey was at the Johnson crime scene primarily as a laborer helping with moving and lifting during removal of the bodies.

As with the earlier unconfirmed claims of having an Associates Degree in Criminal Justice, this is just another example of Steven Pankey trying to inflate his expertise or association with law enforcement and criminal investigation.  And then, he really started to push that narrative. 

“No Hankey With Pankey”

By 2004  he had divorced Angela (2001) moved to Shoshone, Idaho which is part of Lincoln County where he ran as a write-in candidate for Lincoln County Sheriff.  During a speech he said, “You need to know, there’ll be no hankey with Pankey”. He lost.  At the time, a Times-News article said that Pankey was, “a mysterious new arrival to Lincoln County who suddenly became a regular at public meetings in the area.  When asked what he did for a living, he reportedly told people he was a board member of two family trusts”.  Four years later, in 2008, he ran as a Constitution Party candidate for Lincoln County Sheriff, and while he did get 12% of the vote, he lost again.

In 2009, going back a bit to what I told you about the Sarah Johnson murder case, Pankey inserted himself into her subsequent legal quest for a new trial by filing an affidavit saying that when he was at the crime scene in 2004, he overheard Sheriff Walt Femling saying “Well, I guess I’ve got to move evidence to make a case”.  Femling denies this and in a 2009 article published in the Idaho Mountain Express, it states that a review of court records shows that 26 civil cases had been filed against or by Steven Pankey since 1994.  The most recent was a tort claim filed by Pankey in May of 2009 which named various government officials, entities, businesses and individuals as part of the primary claim which is that Idaho Governor Butch Otter acted to keep plaintiff Steven Pankey from becoming a candidate for the 2010 governors race and that Governor Otter “failed to prevent injustice in the Sarah Johnson murder trial”.

The Prosecutor for the Johnson case wrote to the newspaper saying “Pankey is well known to me as someone who has made and continues to make outrageous claims and fabrications”.

Running For Governor of Idaho

In 2010, he tried to get the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Idaho.  He was not nominated, but he did get 14% of the vote against Lt. Governor Brad Little.  Then, in 2014 he declared that he was gay, though emphasizing that he was celibate and a christian.  He said, “I did my best to be straight, but I can’t think that way.  I am Christian, but I am gay.  Discussing his departure from the republican party he said, “I haven’t felt welcome in the Republican Party.  They’re polite but not real welcoming.  I think they want a candidate for governor who has a first lady.”  He then ran for Governor of the State of Idaho as a Constitution Party candidate.  

He lost the election and was denounced by the Constitution party after he wrote a letter to the Attorney General in support of gay marraige.  Somehow, he managed to get back on the ballot in 2018 and ran in the Republican primary for Governor.  

Some Extremely Strange Web Site Content

Pankey’s campaign web sites have contained some truly interesting content. Some of his sites are still up and we will link them at the end of this post. In the “About” section of one site he wrote “Steve regularly watched the popular Superman children’s TV show. On TV adults never seemed to get it that ‘mild mannered’ reporter Clark Kent was really Superman in disguise. Steve watched as both children and adults beliefs and televisions beliefs slowly but surely became one and the same.  Could Americans be led astray by a mild mannered television reporter? “

And he says “Steve’s criminal justice studies included the study of people who acted without conscience.  Could the new media be a study in people who act without conscience?

Apparently that content was not compelling as he lost again, and this time with only a little more than 1% of the vote.

It was in the year following this last failed campaign that Jonelle’s body was found.  As you might remember from part 1, she was found in July of 2019. 

Maybe He Really Is Just A Murderino?

In August of 2019, Steve Pankey became a Patreon supporter of the podcast Unfound which is hosted by Ed Dentzel. Unfound covers missing persons and does interviews as part of the format.   Steve also became a Patreon supporter of the podcast “The Trail Went Cold” which is hosted by Robin Warder.  Unfound had not covered the Jonelle Matthews case, but “The Trail Went Cold” did have an episode covering her disappearance that was released January 25, 2017.   On October 1, 2019 Steve Pankey reached out to Ed Dentzel via email through Patreon.  He wanted to be interviewed for the Unfound podcast, which is interesting because they literally only cover cases where the people are still missing – hence the name “unfound”, but Dentzel did finally agree and released a special episode on November 4, 2019 that includes his full interview with Pankey.  I absolutely recommend you listen to this episode ( though be careful about the volume, it gets quiet when Pankey is talking and super loud when Ed is talking). I was really impressed with Ed’s questions though. He did a great job. I have linked the Unfound podcast, as well as Robin Warder’s “The Trail Went Cold” , in our social media and at the end of this post. In his interview on Unfound Pankey references other podcasts related to the Jonelle Matthews case and seems to have actively listened to them.

Any Publicity Is Good Publicity?

By fall 2019, Steven Pankey was named a person of interest and also he was personally fully aware he was the primary suspect and under investigation in the Jonelle Matthews case.  It was at this time he gave the interview that was released on October 13, 2020 by Idaho’s KTVB Channel 7.  

It can be seen fully on YouTube or on the KTVB website and I published a link to it under Part 1 of this story.  I will link it again at the end of this post. Steven Pankey starts off this interview, which is happening in front of his residence in Twin Falls, Idaho. Looking rather disheveled, wearing a bright pink button up shirt and sunglasses, which might be transition lenses (I know there is a whole audience of True Crime listeners who feel that only serial killers wear transition lenses) he seems very calm and nonchalant which feels strange since he is being interviewed purely because by this time, he has been named as at least a “person of interest” if not a full blown suspect in the kidnapping and murder of a 12 year old girl.  His body language along is almost deliberately calm and as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. I highly recommend you watch this interview because it fully encapsulates how bizarre this man can be. 

Person of Interest In The Kidnapping/Murder of a Child? Why Not Run For Sheriff?

In June of 2020, after his home had been searched, after evidence was seized, and after he was clearly named a suspect  for the kidnapping and murder of Jonelle Matthews, Steve Pankey again ran for sheriff, this time in Twin Falls county.  His website “” is still up and contains more odd content including this headline “Steve wants to improve the system by working within the system creating new more effective, efficient law enforcement methods that quickly — justly resolve criminal cases.  Steve demands justice for crimes against children, crimes against senior citizens, and white collar crimes in the State of Idaho”

His site has a lot about DNA and cold cases. He references several other high profile murder cases and exonerations. Then he says, “Steve Pankey voluntarily uploaded his DNA to a database that is accessible to law enforcement. “ He also makes statements about accepting the fact that without DNA cold cases probably won’t be solved. He even writes that cold cases have a lot of problems like “vindictive ‘witnesses’ ex-wives can be vindictive” and he has a lot to say about how police interrogations should be banned. Steve prefers what he calls “skilled interviews by law enforcement” and finally he mentions protecting what he calls “whistle blowers”. He says, “Reward, protect individuals with real knowledge of real crimes.  Deals lead to knowledge.  Knowledge leads to just convictions.” It is easy to see how he uses this campaign site to reinforce his defense against his being accused in the Jonelle Matthews case. Steve Pankey was not elected Sheriff of Twin County, Idaho.  He was, as you know by now, indicted, charged and then arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Jonelle Matthews.  He is currently in Weld County Jail with an arraignment scheduled for 10:30 am February 3 in Division 11 of the Weld District Court.

Do We Know Who Steve Pankey Is Yet?

So, who is Steve Pankey? Is he just a guy who had a hometown murder and found it exciting so he wanted to insert himself? Is he mentally unstable? Is he a murderer? I certainly don’t know.

His primary narrative seems to be that because he was gay or associated with “homosexual lifestyle” early on, he became a target of the small town Colorado police. That is certainly possible. The late 70’s and early 80’s were not great times to be anything but straight and white in a small town in Colorado (or in many states). He seems to want to imply a set up from the very start, but, so much of his story does not make sense. Recalling part 1, his wife at the time contradicts many of his statements. Yet, it is problematic when your primary accuser is your unhappy ex-wife.

What Steve Thinks Could Have Happened

In several of his interviews whether on television, in news articles or podcasts, Pankey seems to really reiterate the same story of what he “guesses” may have happened. He is very careful to always say he does not know anything, but if he had to speculate this is what might have happened. According to Steve, he is aware from other stories that Jonelle was of hispanic ethnicity, and also that she was “outspoken” and “would not put up with crap”. He believes this might have made her a target for a “trusted adult” who was also a member of the Sunny View Church of the Nazarene in Greeley. He seems to imply they would want to teach her a lesson or otherwise “put her in her place”. Perhaps this adult knew she was alone that night, or maybe not. Either way, he says, ” a trusted adult had an encounter with Jonelle and either hurt her purposely or accidentally. ” He states he does not think the trusted adult was a cop. Pankey has noted that members of the Sunny View Church had good relationships with the police. He thinks it is possible the trusted adult went to a friend in the Greeley police and said something like “I need help, I made a mistake” and then the cop got involved assisting this “trusted adult” in getting rid of the body. This would also be the same cop who approached Pankey’s father in law, though Steve does not believe his father in law would have said yes.

So, Why Focus on Steven Dana Pankey?

Throughout this story you have heard his references to the fact that law enforcement and other authority figures did not like Steve. He even talks about people being out to get him in retaliation for law suits he has won, or because they are prejudiced against him for his “gay lifestyle”. Very little has been released in the press about what prompted Greeley detectives to hone in on Steve, other than his continued attempts to insert himself into the case. There is one big coincidence though. There had been almost no attempt from Greeley or other investigative authorities to contact Steven Pankey or his close friends and relatives in 35 years. Most of the investigation that has been reported to the public seems to have started up again just a few months before Jonelle’s body was discovered. Steve has a theory about this as well. He guesses that some cops knew the location of Jonelle’s body the entire time. At some point they were made aware that the oil and gas company was going to start digging in that area. He thinks that might have given whoever had the knowledge a reason to prompt the detectives to really look hard at him. That way they would have a suspect readily available if the body was found, and of course it was.

This is supposed to be the end of our Steven Dana Pankey story, but given all the open ends, we are going to dive a little deeper and keep an eye on that arraignment coming up on February 3!

More Sources and Informative Links

Check out these two podcasts! Steven Pankey was a Patreon supporter of both Unfound and The Trail Went Cold. The first link is to the special episode of Unfound with the full Pankey interview.