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Former candidate for governor suspected of murdering Jonelle Matthews admits he lied to investigators

Who Killed Jonelle Matthews?
Who Killed Jonelle Matthews? 42:01

When Steven Pankey took the stand in his own murder trial, he braced the jury for surprising testimony about the 1984 disappearance of Jonelle Matthews.

"This is the hard part because I raised my hand and I swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Pankey told a packed courtroom in Weld County, Colorado, on October 28, 2021.

Steven Pankey trial
After hearing testimony from multiple witnesses, Steven Pankey took the stand. He testified that in the past he had lied about his knowledge of the Jonelle Matthews case. Pool

Pankey, 70, frequently veered off topic as he attempted to explain why he inserted himself in a high-profile kidnapping and murder that he says he did not commit.

"I began a series of lies and it got bigger and bigger over the years," Pankey said, adding, "One lie leads to another."

It was a bizarre twist in the tragic case of Jonelle Matthews, who was kidnapped from her home in Greeley, Colorado, on December 20, 1984. "48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger's exclusive report on the cold case murder trial, "Who Killed Jonelle Matthews?" airs Saturday, January 8 at 10/9c on CBS and Paramount+.

Jonelle was 12 years old when she disappeared after attending a Christmas choir concert. A family friend dropped Jonelle off at home alone, and she was never seen alive again.

Police initially looked at Jonelle's father, Jim Matthews, who was the first to discover his daughter was missing. After clearing Jim Matthews, police struggled to find a suspect.

Pankey lived two miles from the Matthews house in December 1984 and had once attended the same church as the Matthews, but he was not considered a suspect until he repeatedly inserted himself into the investigation over several decades.

Jonelle Matthews
Jonelle Matthews Jim and Gloria Matthews

"I told the FBI I want to talk to you," Pankey recalled on the stand. "It may or may not have something to do with Jonelle Matthews."

Pankey, a former security guard, used car salesman and self-professed "true-crime junkie," wasn't charged in the case for 35 years.

"He's a true-crime junkie. He gets himself in the middle of murder cases, but that doesn't necessarily mean he actually was involved in them," Pankey's then-defense attorney Anthony Viorst told the jury.

Through the years, Pankey often spoke to local media, investigators, and anyone else who would listen to him about his theories on Matthews.

"I said I thought that they should look into the church. I thought that they should look into her trusted adults," Pankey testified.

In the time since Jonelle's disappearance, Pankey moved to Idaho where he ran for governor twice and county sheriff three times. His campaign for the top law enforcement position included the tagline "Pankey is the antidote for bozo sheriff investigations."

Pankey now wants a jury to believe he's been the victim of a misguided criminal investigation in Colorado.

Although he once named himself a person of interest in the case, Pankey testified his involvement was all fabrication — orchestrated by him to get back at Greeley Police and others in the community who he felt had wronged him.

"I have had police in the past make up things regarding me," Pankey said.

The day before Matthews' disappearance in 1984, Pankey was arrested for causing a scene at a bank and released hours later. It is just one example in a long line of unusual run-ins with police that Pankey believes made him a target in Greeley. Police and court records of what ultimately happened with these incidents are no longer available.

"I didn't trust the Weld County Sheriff. I didn't trust the Greeley police," Pankey testified.

In the Matthews case, Pankey gave unsolicited statements to the Greeley Police Department, the Weld County District Attorney's Office, and the FBI over the course of 30 years.

"It was just me trying to be a big man, [and] be in the case, OK? I had no knowledge," Pankey testified.

It's a strange way to get attention, admits Viorst. But he says that's just part of Pankey's eccentric nature.

"Mr. Pankey loves the limelight. He just does, for whatever reason," Viorst told "48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger in an exclusive interview as he was preparing for trial.

“48 Hours:” The murder of Jonelle Matthew... 05:00

Pankey even inserted information about Jonelle Matthews into his own 2003 divorce case, writing that Jonelle's family should be told she "died before crossing 10th Street."

Pankey's defense attorney told Schlesinger this was another example of his client feigning knowledge of the case.

"That's just, you know, pulled out of thin air," Viorst said. "It's not true. It's not based on anything."

Pankey says that by 2014, several of his letters to the DA's office were returned to sender, unopened, and Pankey lost interest in the case.

"I just stopped talking about the Jonelle Matthews case," Pankey said.

But after authorities discovered Jonelle's body in July 2019, they began taking Pankey's statements more seriously and paid him a visit at his home in Idaho, where he had since relocated.

During that interview, Pankey testified he told detectives that his information on the Matthews case "might be real or imagined."

Pankey was arrested for Jonelle's kidnapping and murder on October 12, 2020.

In the indictment, authorities cited Pankey's many statements over the years as proof of his involvement in the case. They gave particular importance to Pankey's comments about evidence found outside the Matthews' home.

"Pankey knew of and discussed a crucial piece of evidence from the Matthews house withheld from the public by law enforcement; specifically, a rake was used to obliterate shoe impressions in the snow," the indictment states.

But Pankey says there's another explanation.

"I got information from them. The longer you talk to a cop, some information is going to come out at some point." Pankey testified.

When Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke cross-examined Pankey, he was incredulous.

"You've had 37 years to think about what you were going to say if you ever had to sit on that stand, and that's what you came up with yesterday, 'I made it up?'" Rourke asked.

"Yes," Pankey replied.

Viorst says while Pankey's statements are certainly strange, they don't have any real place in the investigation.

"Nothing he's ever said actually implicates him in the murder," Viorst told Schlesinger.

Despite his cryptic comments about the case, Pankey has always maintained that he never came into contact with Jonelle Matthews.

"I wasn't at the Matthews' home. I didn't know who they were," Pankey testified.

After testifying for two days, Pankey appeared exhausted on the stand as he pleaded his case.

"And that's the truth, OK? And I'm totally humiliated. I wanted to handle this in a lesser way," Pankey said. 

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