Former political candidate names himself a person of interest in a murder case

The strange behavior of Steven Pankey, who twice ran for governor of Idaho, makes him a suspect in the murder of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.

The Kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews
The Kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews 40:50

Last Updated Mar 28, 2021 2:10 AM EDT

On October 12, 2020 Steven Pankey was arrested for the nearly 35-year-old kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews. Just five months prior to his arrest, Pankey was a candidate for sheriff in Twin Falls County, Idaho. It was the last of several strange attempts to hold office in the state of Idaho. In all, Pankey attempted seven runs for office. There were two campaigns for governor, one for municipal council, one for lieutenant governor and three runs for county sheriff. Now, Pankey is awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping and first-degree murder. 

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Steve Pankey ran for various offices - including governor or Idaho. He was never elected. Steve Pankey for Governor/YouTube

The case against Pankey and how police came to charge him after three-and-a-half decades is reported by "48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger in his exclusive report, "The Kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews." 

It was December 1984, just days before Christmas, when 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews disappeared from her family home in Greeley, Colorado. The night she vanished, Jonelle sang in a Christmas choir concert that her parents were unable to attend. After the concert, a close friend and her father dropped Jonelle at home and watched her enter the house. She was alone. About an hour later, her father Jim Matthews was telling police that he had arrived home to find that Jonelle was missing. 

In an interview for "48 Hours," Schlesinger asked Jim Matthews, "Did it occur to you that maybe she had run away? "No," said Matthews "because I know my daughter well enough that number one, it's Christmas time … She just loves the whole festivities of Christmas."

The kidnapping and murder of Jonelle Matthews... 03:15

The Matthews home was now a crime scene, but it yielded very little physical evidence. There were no fingerprints, no signs of a struggle, and even if there were any DNA, law enforcement was still years from being able to use it to help solve cases. All investigators had to go on were some shoeprints in the fresh snow just outside the Matthews home. Shoeprints that someone had tried to wipe away using a garden rake "right out of my garage" says Jim Matthews.

With no viable leads, police focused their attention on Jim Matthews himself for a few months, and Jim says they accused him of being involved in his daughter's appearance. He says that at first, he understood and cooperated fully. He even agreed to a polygraph exam administered by an FBI agent. But when he was told that he had failed the lie detector test, Matthews says, "That's when I started losing it … I said listen, I have been very honest with you … I've been accessible to you any time you wanted, but I'm getting sick of this because I am innocent." Matthews was cleared in February 1985 and then the case went cold for nearly 35 years.

Gloria Matthews says she never gave up hope of find her daughter alive. "Everywhere we went I was always looking for her … I always had hope that I would find her," she tells Schlesinger. Then, on July 23, 2019 all hope was lost. Excavators installing pipeline not far from Greeley discovered what would later be determined to be Jonelle's remains. "I didn't want that to be Jonelle," says Gloria Matthews.

Weeks later, the seemingly ice-cold case quickly heated up. Police started questioning a person of interest living 700 miles away in Twin Falls, Idaho: Steven Pankey. 

"We had never heard the name before that," says Jim Matthews. "We were totally clueless about this guy." Pankey said the same to Twin Falls CBS affiliate KMVT. "I've never met Jonelle Matthews," Pankey told the TV station. "Never met her, never talked to her." Why was Pankey suddenly connected to the crime?

The Matthews family would soon learn that Pankey was living in Greeley the night Jonelle disappeared — just two miles from their home. He had also attended their church but left before they joined. Jim Matthews says that Pankey was asked to leave the church because he had allegedly been causing trouble. "Does it have a bearing on this case?" Schlesinger asked Jim Matthews. "I think it does," he responded, "Yes."

In an eight-page indictment laying out the State of Colorado's case against Steven Pankey, the prosecution lists multiple instances of Pankey inserting himself into the case over the years. He allegedly volunteered, without being asked, what he claimed were details about when Jonelle died. He told police "not to give the family hope," and he drew up a list of persons of interest with his own name on it. Pankey even told KMVT that just weeks after Jonelle disappeared he went to the FBI with information that he believed might help solve the case. "I contacted the Fort Collins FBI office," he said. I want to talk to you. It may or may not have something to do with the Jonelle Matthews case." But the most damning evidence against Pankey may be that he allegedly knew that whoever kidnapped and killed Jonelle used a rake to cover up their shoeprints in the snow — a detail that was allegedly only known to investigators and the Matthews family.

Pankey's defense attorney, Anthony Viorst, says his client is innocent and is just an obsessive true-crime fan who was looking for attention. "Mr. Pankey loves the limelight," says Viorst. "It's a hell of a way to get the limelight," responded Richard Schlesinger. "It is, and it's not a good way" answered Viorst, "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone … It was all well and good, I suppose, until he actually got charged."

Greeley Mayor John Gates, once a police officer who was called to the scene of Jonelle's abduction, admits this is a very odd case. "I mean, this is … some of the most bizarre stuff I've ever heard, and I've been around the block." But he says the case is as strong as it is strange, and he believes that the prosecution will prevail when Pankey's trial begins on July 12. "I think they did a stellar job, and I commend our district attorney for prosecuting the case. But, you know, time will tell it. It's not over yet."