Decades after the 12-year-old's disappearance, investigators have zeroed in on a suspect. "48 Hours" correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports on the case in "The Kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews."
On July 23, 2019, the remains of Jonelle Matthews were discovered by an excavation crew digging a pipeline in a rural area southeast of Greeley, Colorado.
Last Seen Alive
Jonelle had been missing for nearly 35 years. In 1984, just five days before Christmas, the 12-year-old, pictured in center of photo, performed in a choir concert and then vanished after being dropped off at home by a family friend. Jonelle's father, Jim Matthews discovered her missing and called police.
The Matthews Home
Investigators searched the Matthews home, but the only physical evidence they found were shoeprints in the snow that someone had tried to eliminate with a garden rake. The rake came, "right out of my garage," Jim Matthews told "48 Hours."
The Search for Jonelle
Days after Jonelle disappeared, a task force calling itself the "Rescue Jonelle Committee" raised $20,000 as a reward for anyone with information leading to the return of Jonelle or to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for her disappearance.
As investigators struggled to find answers, they focused initially on Jonelle's father Jim Matthews. Jim Matthews was eventually cleared.
Jonelle was one of the first missing children featured on milk cartons across the country. This is a photo of the layout that was sent to various paper companies for the production of the milk cartons.
Jonelle's case received national attention when President Ronald Reagan mentioned her in a White House speech on March 7, 1985. "… I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado, who would have celebrated a happy 13th birthday with her family just last month," he said.
Stone Cold Case
Despite decades of ongoing police work and public interest, Jonelle's case remained cold. Until a man living in Twin Falls Idaho, Steven Pankey, became a person of interest.
Who is Steve Pankey?
At the time of Jonelle's disappearance, Steve Pankey lived in Greeley. He even attended the same church as the Matthews family, and left just before they joined. They didn't know Pankey. Law enforcement records describe other unrelated run-ins Pankey had with Greeley police. They include minor and non-violent allegations, like accusations of creating a nuisance and harassment.
The home where Pankey lived with his family at the time of Jonelle's disappearance. Pankey told NBC affiliate KTVB he remembers where he was the night Jonelle disappeared. "… I was home with my then wife and my 5-year-old son."
A few years after Jonelle disappeared, Pankey and his family moved around to different states before settling in Idaho. There he found an interest: politics. He ran for sheriff three times, municipal council, lieutenant governor, and even governor - twice. He was never elected.
While living in Idaho, Pankey continued to have brushes with the law. In a few court filings, he brought up Jonelle's case such as this 1999 filing when he told the Idaho Supreme Court that his conviction for causing a scene in a bank was in part "an attempt to force" him "to become an informant" in Jonelle's disappearance. He also wrote that he feared he might "get the death penalty for revealing the location of Ms. Matthews body."
Pankey's Home Searched
On September 4, 2019, just over a month after Jonelle's remains were found, authorities searched Pankey's home in Twin Falls, Idaho. "They've got full SWAT gear on," Pankey said in an interview with CBS affiliate KMTV and he said, "…they took my laptop, cell phones, they took a bunch of pics …"
A year after authorities searched Steve Pankey's home, a grand jury handed down an eight-page indictment against Pankey on October 9, 2020. It charged that "he took Jonelle Matthews from her family home …" and "shot Jonelle Matthews during the course of the kidnapping."
In a matter of three days, on October 12, 2020, police arrested Pankey for kidnapping and first-degree murder in Jonelle's case. By February 3, 2021, Pankey plead not guilty for those crimes. "…there's no indication that he committed this murder, no indication that he had anything to do with burying the body," Pankey's defense attorney Anthony Viorst told "48 Hours." "Mr. Pankey wanted to be a person of interest … Mr. Pankey loves the limelight … all of the statements that he has made about his culpability have been, 'I didn't do it.'"
Pankey's trial is scheduled to take place on July 12, 2021.