Greeley, CO

Former Governor of Idaho Candidate Arrested in 36-Year-Old Cold Case

Fatim Hemraj

Jonelle Matthews was a twelve-year-old girl who lived in Greeley, Colorado with her adoptive parents, Jim and Gloria Matthews and her older sister, Jennifer. Jim was a school principal and Gloria stayed at home with the children. The four visited church together as a family when they could.

Jonelle’s birth mother Terri Vierra-Martinez was only thirteen when she gave birth to her. After a month of being a new mother, Terri realized she was not capable of the responsibility due to her young age and placed Jonelle up for adoption.

According to Jonelle’s older sister Jennifer, Jonelle was sassy and independent. She was well cared for by her adoptive family and had a very loving childhood

Jonelle’s disappearance

On December 20, 1984, Jonelle performed in a holiday concert as a member of her middle school’s choir. Unfortunately, neither of her parents were able to attend the concert. Jim was attending Jennifer’s basketball game and Gloria was out of town visiting a sick relative. Nonetheless, the show had to go on.

Afterwards, Jonelle’s friend DeeAnn Ross and her father drove Jonelle home. Jonelle got home at around 8:15 pm. At 8:30 pm, she answered a phone call and wrote down a message for her father.

What happened to Jonelle after this phone call, was a mystery for over thirty-five years.

At 9:30 pm Jonelle’s father came home and could not find Jonelle. He noticed Jonelle’s shoes and scarf by the front door. Although there were no signs of forced entry, it was the dead of winter and Jim knew Jonelle would not go outside without those two things. He notified the authorities.

The police arrived at the Matthews’ home at around 10:15 pm. They noticed there were footprints in the snow very near to the Matthews’ home, suggesting someone had been keeping an eye on the house.

The investigation

Jonelle’s case was widely publicized. Ronald Reagan, who was the president of the United States at the time, mentioned Jonelle in a speech on March 7, 1985. He appealed to the media, asking them to create awareness of Jonelle’s case and pleaded with journalists to print out photos of any missing children and circulate them.

Investigators theorized Jonelle had run away but Jim never believed that story, especially since she had left without shoes and there was heavy snow on the ground at the time of her disappearance. Investigators stuck to this theory until they searched her school locker to look for any clues she may have been planning to run away. When they found nothing, they finally took the case as a serious abduction.

They set their sights on Jonelle’s birth mother Terri. They tracked Terri for weeks before realizing she had no idea her biological daughter had gone missing. Next, the investigators interviewed all of Jonelle’s friends, teachers and neighbours but once again, they found nothing out of the ordinary.

At this point, the FBI became involved. A $5,000 reward was announced for any information on Jonelle’s whereabouts or the identity of her kidnapper.

The police received hundreds of tips but unfortunately, none of them resulted in any leads and the case had gone cold.

Ten years after her disappearance, Jonelle’s parents declared her legally dead. Soon after, Terri sent a letter to Jim and Gloria asking if she could meet with Jonelle. The Matthews informed Terri what had happened and over time, the two families became friends and mourned for Jonelle together.

Discovery & arrest

On July 23, 2019, thirty-five years after Jonelle was abducted, excavators were installing a new pipeline in a remote oil and gas site in Weld County when they found Jonelle’s remains. The investigators confirmed her identity through DNA. An autopsy was released and Jonelle’s death was caused due to a single gunshot wound to her head.

On September 13, 2019, former governor of Idaho candidate Steve Pankey was announced by the Greeley police department as a person of interest in Jonelle’s case. According to the indictment, investigators claimed Steve abducted Jonelle from her home sometime between 8:30 and 9:30 pm. At some point during the kidnapping, he shot her in the head and buried her.

Although the connection between Jonelle and Steve has not yet been explicitly stated, the indictment has strong implications Jonelle’s remains were an integral part in finding her killer and it is likely DNA may have played a major role.

Steve Pankey only lived two miles away from the Matthews at the time of Jonelle’s murder. He went to school for criminal justice and he ran for governor twice, once in 2014 and again in 2018. He was also a youth minister at the same church the Matthews attended.

Steve attempted to speak with the investigators multiple times over the years about Jonelle’s case. He consistently inserted himself into the investigation, claiming he had information about the kidnapping, yet his statements were always inconsistent and contradicting. At one point, Steve demanded immunity in exchange for information about the case.

Steve’s computer history showed he made several searches about Jonelle Matthews over the years and attempted to delete that information in 2019 when he knew the investigators had zeroed in on him as their prime suspect.

The indictment also stated Steve had given them a false alibi that he was on a family vacation during the time of Jonelle’s disappearance. Although he did end up going on a family vacation, it was abrupt and it was only after Jonelle’s disappearance. Steve’s wife stated Steve acted oddly during the entire trip and continuously spent his time talking about the disappearance of Jonelle.

When a fellow minister said Jonelle would return home safely, Steve allegedly replied, “false prophet.”

On October 13, 2020, only three days ago prior to the date of this writing, Steve Pankey was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping in the case of Joelle Matthews. Steve is currently being held without bond in Idaho, awaiting extradition to Colorado to face the charges.

Jonelle’s parents had retired and moved to Costa Rica but never gave up hope to find their daughter's killer.

According to Idaho 6 News, Greeley Police Chief Mark Jones stated, “I trust this new development helps the Matthews family, their friends, and our community to receive some closure and healing from this horrific crime. To the Matthews family, I pray that this news brings you some closure and hope as we continue to pursue justice for Jonelle and your family. We have never forgotten Jonelle and we never will.”

Sources: Daily Mail UK, Idaho 6 News, YouTube

Originally published by the author on Medium on Oct 16, 2020. All rights reserved.

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