GREELEY, Colo. — A former longshot Idaho gubernatorial candidate was convicted Monday of kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old Colorado girl who went missing nearly 40 years ago.
Jurors found Steve Pankey, 71, guilty of felony murder, second-degree kidnapping and false reporting in the disappearance and death of Jonelle Matthews in 1984, the office of district attorney Michael Rourke said. A judge then sentenced him to life prison with the possibility of parole, the Greeley Tribune reported.
It was Pankey’s second trial in the case. Last year, jurors were unable to reach verdicts on the kidnapping and murder charges and prosecutors decided to put him on trial again.
Pankey was a neighbor of Jonelle and her family when she vanished after being dropped off at her empty home by a family friend after performing at a Christmas concert in Greeley, Colorado, a city about 50 miles north of Denver. He emerged as a person of interest in the case three decades later — shortly before Jonelle’s body was found in 2019 — after claiming to have information about what happened to her and asking for immunity from prosecution.
Pankey’s lawyers said his behavior may have seemed unusual but they argued police did not secure hard evidence against him and failed to clear an alternate suspect who died in 2007, the Tribune reported.
Prosecutors said Pankey kept up to date on the case throughout the years even as he moved his family to several states before settling in Idaho where he ran unsuccessfully as a Constitution Party candidate for Idaho governor in 2014 and in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2018, the year that authorities said he was named as a person of interest in the girl’s death.
Jonelle’s case came to the attention of then-President Ronald Reagan as his administration launched a national effort to find missing children. Her picture was printed on milk cartons across the United States as part of a project by the National Child Safety Council.
She was considered missing until workers digging a pipeline in a rural area near Greeley in July 2019 discovered human remains matching her dental records.
Her death was then ruled a homicide. She died from a single gunshot wound to the head, prosecutors said.