It was the evening of December 20, 1984 and 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews was home alone at her parent’s house at 320 43rd Avenue Court in Greeley, Colorado. She had eaten at McDonalds with her dad and performed with the Greeley's Franklin Middle School Choir earlier that evening before getting dropped off back home by a fellow classmate and her father at around 8:15PM. Jonelle’s parents couldn’t make it to her performance, her mother, Gloria, was out of town tending to a sick relative and her father, Jim, was at her older sister’s basketball game. Jonelle was adopted by the Matthews after her mother, Terri Vierra-Martinez, gave her up for adoption when she was just six-weeks old in 1972. Jonelle had hoped to reconnect with her mother one day.
Jonelle knew she wouldn’t be home alone for long, her farther was due to return in an hour or so. At 8:30PM she answered the house phone and jotted down a message for him, tragically, this would be the last time anyone would speak with the young girl.
Jim Matthews got home at around 9:30PM to find the house empty. He called for Jonelle and searched the house, but there was no sign of her. Her shoes and scarf were still in the living room and with snow on the ground in late December, Jim began to worry. When his older daughter, Jennifer, returned home and had no idea of Jonelle’s whereabouts, Jim called the police to report her missing. The police were at the Greely home within 15 minutes and although they found no sign of a struggle in the house, they found a set of footprints in the snow leading up to the windows, evidence that someone had been watching Jonelle before she went missing.
The girl was never seen alive again.
With no leads or suspects police began to survey her biological mother, Terri Vierra-Martinez. Martinez was not alerted that her child had gone missing and wouldn’t find out until a decade later when she tracked down Jim and Gloria in an attempt to be reunited with Jonelle. The missing girl’s image was later printed on Milk cartons and distributed nationwide in an attempt to appeal to the public for tips and information, but nothing came of it.
With no leads the case went cold and remained so for 35 years.
On the evening of July 23, 2019, while digging to lay new pipelines around 15 miles from the old Matthew family home on 43rd Avenue Court, construction workers discovered the skeletal remains of a child on an oil and gas site in a rural part of unincorporated Weld County.
The remains were later identified as Jonelle Matthews and were dressed in the same clothing she had worn to perform with Greeley's Franklin Middle School Choir on the day she went missing.
Two months later investigators announced a suspect in the case had been arrested: Steven Dana Pankey.
Pankey, now 69 years old, has long been a suspect in the case having inserted himself into the investigation multiple times over the years in the form of letters, statements and interviews that police say contradicted and changed over time. He was arrested for the murder and kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews on 12 October and is being held at a jail in Idaho where he awaits extradition. Police revealed that the suspect was aware of details that had never been released to the public, for example, Jonelle Matthew’s kidnapper had used a rake to distort his footprints in the snow.
After Jonelle’s disappearance Steve Pankey tried to get into politics, at one point standing as a Constitution Party candidate for Idaho governor. His connection to the Jonelle Matthews case continued to be a point of interest for interviewers throughout his attempt at a political career and although Pankey denied his involvement police were listening closely to the interviews he gave.
Pankey, who lived 2 miles from the Matthew’s home in Greely at the time of Jonelle’s disappearance, claimed that he wasn’t in the area when the girl went missing. He told police that he, his wife, and child had packed up their car and drove to California to see family over the Christmas period. He went on to say that it was only several days later, on the drive back into town that he heard about the case on the radio. Pankey’s now ex-wife, however, told investigators that they left two days after the girl disappeared and said her then husband, who rarely listened to the radio, was scouring the airwaves for news of the crime as they drove back into town.
Pankey was born in California to Evangelical parents and had extended family there who he would visit. His father was a reverend in the 1940s and his family was heavily involved in the church all their lives. Steve Pankey continued to attend church throughout the various towns he moved to over the years and various articles state that at one point he attended the same church as the Matthews family.
Not only did Pankey live nearby the Matthew’s home at the time Jonelle disappeared but reports state that he also watched children at the nearby Franklin Middle School, where the missing girl was enrolled.
A heavily redacted autopsy report released by the court this week reveals that the suspect shot Jonelle during the kidnapping. The cause of death was determined to be a single gunshot to the head. Pankey was known to own a firearm at the time.