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Former Idaho gubernatorial candidate charged with killing girl, 12, who vanished in 1984

Steven Pankey, 69, has been charged with kidnapping and killing Jonelle Matthews in 1984. Her remains were found just last year.
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An Idaho man who twice launched long-shot bids for governor has been arrested and charged with kidnapping and killing 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, who disappeared in 1984 and whose remains were found in a rural part of Colorado last year, authorities said Tuesday.

Steven Pankey, 69, was arrested in Idaho on Monday after he was indicted by a Weld County, Colorado, grand jury on a first-degree murder charge and other counts, the Weld County district attorney said.

Jonelle disappeared from her home in Greeley, Colorado, on Dec. 20, 1984, after performing in a Christmas concert. Her remains were found in July 2019 in a rural area of Weld County now dotted with oil and gas wells as crews were working on a pipeline.

This week's arrest was "36 years in the making," Greeley Police Chief Mark Jones said.

"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," Jones said at a news conference Tuesday.

"With the arrest of Steve Pankey for the murder of Jonelle Matthews, some of these questions are starting to be answered," he said.

Image: Jennifer Mogensen
Jennifer Mogensen holds a poster of her adopted sister, Jonelle Matthews, on Aug. 12, 2019. Steve Pankey, a former longshot candidate for Idaho governor, has been indicted on Oct. 13, 2020, in the murder of Jonelle Matthews, a 12-year-old Colorado girl who went missing in 1984.David Zalubowski / AP file

Jonelle died from a gunshot wound to her forehead, and Pankey is accused of shooting her during the course of the kidnapping, according to Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke and the indictment.

Rourke called the discovery of the remains significant, but he said that Pankey had been a person of interest since 2018.

The case went to a grand jury in August, Rourke said. The jury returned the indictment Friday and a warrant was issued for Pankey's arrest, he said.

Pankey apparently knew he was a person of interest last year. He told the Idaho Statesman newspaper in September 2019 that he was under investigation in the killing of Matthews and a search warrant had been executed.

He told the newspaper then that he did not know Jonelle or her family and or anything about the girl until six days after she was last seen. "I have nothing to hide," he told the Statesman.

Pankey told the Twin Falls, Idaho, Times-News newspaper last week he was being framed.

Pankey attended the same church as the Matthews in 1978, and he may have known them through that, Rourke said.

Pankey, who twice ran for governor of Idaho in the past in what were described as long-shot bids, was being held at the Ada County, Idaho, jail with no bail, Rourke said.

The disappearance of Jonelle was mentioned by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1985 when he asked the National Newspaper Association to regularly publish information of missing children as a "mission of mercy," according to records from the presidential library and museum.

Jonelle's information was one of the first featured on the National Child Safety Council's national milk carton program, in which photographs of missing children and other information was printed on the cartons, Rourke said.

Image: Jennifer Mogensen
Family photographs of Jonelle Matthews, who went missing just before Christmas 1984 and whose remains were found in Greeley, Colo. in 2019, on a table in a home in Greeley on Aug. 12, 2019.David Zalubowski / AP file

Pankey will be extradited from Idaho to Colorado to face charges, the district attorney said. Pankey was arrested Monday at his home in Meridian, Idaho.

Pankey's attorney, Anthony J. Viorst, told NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver that "the fact that they waited 36 years to indict him reflects the fact they don't have any evidence, there's never been any evidence."

"I anticipate he will be exonerated of all charges," Viorst said.

Pankey claimed to the Idaho-Statesman last year that on the night Jonelle disappeared he was home with his wife at the time with their car loaded up for a visit to California to visit family for Christmas, and they planned to leave the next day.

Among other evidence considered by the grand jury in returning an indictment against Pankey was that his now ex-wife said that trip started on Dec. 22, 1984, two days after Jonelle went missing, and that the trip was unexpected, according to the indictment.

The ex-wife said that on the way back Pankey uncharacteristically listened to the radio, searching for news of the girl's disappearance, and when they got back to Greeley on Dec. 26 he forced her to read newspaper articles about the case.

After getting back home Pankey "began digging in their yard" and a car that was on their property caught fire and was disposed of at a salvage yard, the indictment says. They lived around two miles away from the Matthews home at the time.

The ex-wife said that in 2008 she heard Pankey say at the funeral of his son, who had been murdered, "I hope God didn't allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews," according to the indictment.

Pankey has been charged with one count of murder in the first degree — after deliberation; one count of murder in the first degree — felony murder; second-degree kidnapping; and two counts of crime of violence, which are described as sentencing enhancements.