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Former Idaho governor candidate is charged in 1984 cold-case murder of 12-year-old Colorado girl Jonelle Matthews whose remains were discovered last year

 A former youth minister who ran for election in 2018 as Idaho governor has been charged in the cold-case murder of a 12-year-old Colorado girl whose disappearance in 1984 shocked the nation.   

Steve Pankey, 69, was arrested on Monday at his home in Meridian, a suburb of Boise, Idaho for the murder of Jonelle Matthews.

His arrest was announced on Tuesday by Michael Rourke, Weld district attorney, who said that Pankey had been indicted by a grand jury on October 9. 

Matthews was abducted from her family home in Greeley, Colorado, in December 1984. The case remained cold until her remains were discovered last year. 

Rourke said she died from a single shot to the head. 

Pankey is being held without bail, awaiting extradition to Colorado, and is facing charges of felony murder, kidnapping and two violent crime sentence enhancements.

Steve Pankey has been charged with murder over the death of Jonelle Matthews, 12, in 1984

Steve Pankey has been charged with murder over the death of Jonelle Matthews, 12, in 1984

Jonelle Matthews vanished from her Colorado home five days before Christmas in 1984

Jonelle Matthews vanished from her Colorado home five days before Christmas in 1984

Pankey, an avowed Trump supporter, promised to 'drain the swamp in Idaho'

Pankey, an avowed Trump supporter, promised to 'drain the swamp in Idaho'


'For over three decades, the disappearance of Jonelle Matthews has left our community with many unanswered questions and a void that has not been filled,' said Mark Jones, chief of Greeley police department.

'With the arrest of Steve Pankey, some of these questions are starting to be answered.' 

Pankey was born in Ventura, California, before moving to Colorado - living in a house two miles from the Matthews residence. 

Pankey was a youth minister at Sunny View Church of the Nazarene, attended by the Matthews family, and had watched children from the Jonelle's middle school walk home, according to charging documents.

The little girl was last been seen entering the family home after being dropped off from a holiday choir concert that evening around 8pm. 

When her father returned from her sister Jennifer's basketball game an hour later, Jonelle was gone. 

Her shoes sat by a chair. Her stockings were thrown over the couch, but Jonelle was gone. 

A search ensued, which caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan.  

Missing children became such a concern during the early 1980s that President Ronald Reagan addressed it during a speech to the National Newspapers Association.

Reagan specifically referenced Jonelle during his March 7, 1985 address asking newspaper editors to regularly publish photos and articles about missing children so police could better solicit leads on their whereabouts.

'I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado, who would have celebrated a happy 13th birthday with her family just last month,' Reagan said. 

'But five days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home. 

'Letters like these touch us deeply, and we've tried our best to help. 

'So, today I'd like to ask for your help.'

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was founded and opened six months before Jonelle's disappearance, and the National Child Safety Council used her image as one of its early campaigns, with her face appearing on milk cartons, to publicize the search. 

In September 2019 investigators served a warrant on Pankey, telling him he was a 'person of interest', and prosecutors had 'probable cause' to believe he had kidnapped and killed Jonelle, he told the Idaho Statesman

He told the newspaper that he was home with his then-wife the night Jonelle went missing, their car packed for an early-morning trip the next day to visit family in California. 

Family photographs of Jonelle Matthews, 12, who went missing just before Christmas 1984

Family photographs of Jonelle Matthews, 12, who went missing just before Christmas 1984

Jonelle Matthews was last seen on December 20, 1984 at a choir performance at school

Jonelle Matthews was last seen on December 20, 1984 at a choir performance at school

They took the trip and returned home six days later in 1984, Pankey said.

He said he heard the news of a missing child on the radio.

The ex-wife told prosecutors the trip was unexpected. 

On the way home, Pankey 'uncharacteristically listened to the radio, searching for news accounts of Jonelle's disappearance,' according to the indictment.

The community in Greeley, 50 miles north of Denver, continued to search, eventually abandoning their efforts. 

 That all changed around on July 19, 2019 when oilfield workers who were digging a pipeline about near Greeley unearthed a small hole containing a child's skull, bones, and severed jaw fit with braces, according to the Greeley Tribune, which obtained photos of the remains.

Police who recovered the body from the scene confirmed that the remains, which were found with what appeared to be tattered blue and red clothes, belonged to Jonelle, who also wore braces before her disappearance.

Police then labeled her death a homicide. 

On Tuesday Rourke, the Weld district attorney, in Idaho, said Jonelle died from a single gunshot wound to her forehead.

Authorities investigate the scene in July 2019 after oilfield workers discovered bones

Authorities investigate the scene in July 2019 after oilfield workers discovered bones

The bones were proved from dental records to be Jonelle, wearing the clothes she vanished in

The bones were proved from dental records to be Jonelle, wearing the clothes she vanished in


 Pankey left Greeley in 1987, bound for Idaho. 

In 2008, according to prosecutors, his former wife heard him say at his son's funeral: 'I hope God didn't allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews.' 

In his interview last year with the local newspaper, which he said he did to clear his name, Pankey insisted he was innocent.

'I didn't know she existed or disappeared until Wednesday, December 26 (1984),' Pankey said.

Pankey argued that Greeley police had a vendetta against him. 

Pankey said that in 1977, four years after moving to Greeley in 1973, he was accused of the 'date rape' of a 23-year-old woman he was seeing. Pankey at the time was 26. 

The sex was consensual and prosecutors dropped the charges, he says, but authorities in Greeley never forgot him because of the allegations.

'Once you're accused of something like date rape, you're forever stigmatized,' he told the Statesman. 

Greeley police, according to Pankey, slapped him with about 20 'arbitrary' misdemeanors, including battery and harassment by phone. 

He said he was taken to court several times, and claimed victory in every case. 

He admitted, however, that he had refused to speak to Greeley police, without an attorney present. 

A victim's advocate (above) in Greeley posts a flyer about the missing girl in December, when the community was observing the 34th anniversary of Jonelle's disappearance

A victim's advocate (above) in Greeley posts a flyer about the missing girl in December, when the community was observing the 34th anniversary of Jonelle's disappearance

Jennifer Mogensen holds a poster of her sister Jonelle, who disappeared in 1984

Jennifer Mogensen holds a poster of her sister Jonelle, who disappeared in 1984

Jonelle's parents, Jim and Gloria Matthews (above), above with their daughter's remains. The couple are retired and are living in Costa Rica

Jonelle's parents, Jim and Gloria Matthews (above), above with their daughter's remains. The couple are retired and are living in Costa Rica

Pankey's 2018 campaign website states his staunch support for President Donald Trump and details how he studied criminal justice, and became convinced that 'globalists' were manipulating people's minds through the media.

'Steve's criminal justice studies included the study of people who acted without a conscience. Could the news media be a study in people who act without a conscience?' the website states. 

He is described on the site as 'the principled choice for Idaho governor'. 

His arrest was celebrated by Matthews' sister, Jennifer Mogensen, who was in high school when her sister vanished.

'I'm learning new things and I have to process that,' said Mogensen. 

'But mostly I'm super grateful that this first step toward justice was taken. It will be a long journey but we're just really excited and grateful that this is happening.'

Their parents, Jim and Gloria Matthews, are retired and living in Costa Rica. 

Pankey ran for governor of Idaho in 2018, describing himself as 'the principled choice'

Pankey ran for governor of Idaho in 2018, describing himself as 'the principled choice'

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