Steve Pankey: Where is Jonelle Matthews’ Killer Now?

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On December 20, 1984, Jonelle Matthews vanished from Greeley, Colorado, into thin air. She remained missing for almost 35 years as her family and the police searched for her. While the search was going on, Steve Pankey, a former Idaho governor candidate, made himself a person of interest by making allegedly incriminating statements and also discussing information about the crime the police had withheld from the public.

Once Jonelle’s remains were discovered in 2019, the police accused and arrested Pankey for the murder. ’48 Hours: The Kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews’ chronicles this strange disappearance and charts how and why the police came to accuse Steve Pankey.

Who Is Steve Pankey?

Steve Pankey was born in 1951 in Ventura, California. His father was a Youth for Christ leader, and Pankey claimed that he came from a family with a “long history of homosexuals and hellfire/brimstone Baptists.” In 1975, he enlisted with the US army in Denver but was discharged precisely one year later. It was suggested that his discharge might have been related to homosexual activities as right after being released, he said that he “left the gay lifestyle” and “repented” for it.

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Before Jonelle’s disappearance, there were a few allegations against Pankey, namely teenage students who claimed that he maced them and a woman who accused him of rape. He was not convicted on either of these allegations. Shortly after the rape charges, Pankey claimed that he was given disturbing information about members of the Sunny View Church of The Nazarene, where he himself was a member.

He left the church around June of 1978, and in the summer of that same year, Jonelle’s loving parents became a part of the congregation. It was around six and a half years later, on December 20, 1984, that Jonelle vanished from her Greeley home. According to reports, Pankey lived about two miles away from the Matthews home during the time of this incident. Angela Hicks, Pankey’s then-wife, told police how he took her on an unexpected trip right after the girl’s disappearance and that he also dumped the family dogs before the trip.

She stated that Pankey listened to the radio for news about Jonelle’s disappearance on the drive home and forced her to read him news from newspapers on the same topic. Pankey also reportedly dug up his yard on their return, and there was the mysterious case of a car bursting into flames which Pankey disposed of at a local salvage yard.

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Over the years, the police said that Pankey had “intentionally inserted himself into the investigation,” claiming to have information about the crime. Yet, all the former political candidate’s words did was point the fingers right back at him, implicating him for the heinous murder instead. He allegedly kept asking for immunity in exchange for knowledge about Jonelle’s disappearance. He also kept searching for information about Jonelle on the internet and has been reported to make statements that made others believe that he knew Jonelle was dead.

Furthermore, the police claimed that Pankey had information about a crucial piece of evidence – a rake used to sweep away footprints in the snow – which the police had not disclosed to the public. While the search was ongoing, he moved to Oklahoma and then to Idaho, where he ran twice for governor in 2014 and 2018. Yet everything changed in July 2019 when excavators installing a pipeline about 15 miles southwest of Jonelle’s home discovered human remains. The Weld County Coroner’s Office used DNA evidence to confirm that the remains were Jonelle’s. The medical examiner also found out that the cause of death was a single gunshot wound straight to the head.

Steve Pankey is Behind Bars Today

Right after Jonelle’s remains were discovered, detectives traveled to Pankey’s residence to question him, but he refused to cooperate. In September 2019, they thus executed a warrant to search his condo in Idaho upon suspicion of involvement. However, it was more than a year later, on October 13, 2020, that the police announced Pankey had been indicted on charges related to first-degree murder and kidnapping in Jonelle’s death.

His indictment also presented 26 reasons why Pankey was being suspected and accused of Jonelle’s abduction and murder. His formal charge indicted him on five counts related to Jonelle’s death: murder in the first degree after deliberation, felony murder, second-degree kidnapping, and two related crime of violence charges.

Pankey claimed that he had no idea about Jonelle’s disappearance as he had left Greeley to visit his parents in California in the early hours of December 21, 1984. He said that he heard of Jonelle’s disappearance only after he returned, several days later. This statement contradicted his ex-wife’s account, who told police that the California trip took place after the disappearance.

After his indictment, Pankey pleaded not guilty to the charges, choosing to take his case to trial while remaining in custody on a $5 million bond. He first faced court for the counts against him in 2021, yet it ended in a mistrial when the jury could only reach a unanimous decision on one count, that of false reporting. However, his retrial in 2022 resulted in the jury finding him guilty of not just false reporting but also second-degree kidnapping and first-degree felony murder — he was found not guilty of first-degree murder.

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The former neighbor of the Matthews family/ex-gubernatorial candidate has since been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, meaning he could presumably go free one day. Yet, as of writing, 71-year-old Steve Pankey is incarcerated at the mixed-security Limon Correctional Facility in Lincoln County, Colorado. According to state records, he’ll actually become eligible for parole on October 1, 2040, when he’s in his late 80s.

Read More: Where Are Jim and Gloria Matthews Now?