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Hey, y’all. I’m going back to 1984 this week to explore the case of the murder of Jonelle Matthews. In December 1984, a 12-year-old girl named Jonelle Matthews disappeared from her Colorado home, starting a mystery that lasted for almost 40 years. A man named Steven Pankey became a key figure in the case, raising a lot of eyebrows with his strange behavior. Jonelle’s disappearance made waves across the country, even getting mentioned by President Ronald Reagan. Her picture even showed up on milk cartons, which made their way to many homes around the country.
Jonelle Matthews was born on February 9, 1972, in Santa Barbara, California, at Cottage Hospital. She was born to a young 13-year-old girl named Terri Vierra. But soon, her life took a new turn.
When she was just one month old, Jonelle was adopted by a loving couple from Greeley, Colorado, named James “Jim” and Gloria Matthews. This was a new beginning for Jonelle. She got a new home, new parents, and even a big sister, Jennifer, to grow up with.
Jim and Gloria were caring parents and well-liked in their community. Jonelle’s father Jim Matthews was the principal of Platte Valley Elementary School in Kersey, Colorado, where he shaped young minds and built a sense of community among the students.
Gloria was a warm and nurturing mother. Together, they provided a safe and loving home for Jonelle and her older sister. But their ordinary family life was about to be disrupted by an extraordinary and heart-wrenching event: Jonelle’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance.
On December 20, 1984, Jonelle Matthews was on stage, performing at her school’s Christmas concert. After the show, her friend DeeAnna and DeeAnna’s father dropped her off at her house. It was around 8:15 PM. With her father at her older sister’s basketball game and her mother out of state visiting a sick family member, the house was empty and silent.
At about 8:30 PM, Jonelle picked up a phone call, jotting down a message for her dad. Little did anyone know, that call would be the last conversation anyone ever had with Jonelle.
When her father came home at around 9:30 PM, he found the garage door mysteriously open, yet the house was lifeless. Jonelle’s shoes and shawl were casually placed near a heater in the family room, which was her favorite spot. Concern began to creep in when Jonelle’s older sister Jennifer came home at 10 PM and still, there was no sign of Jonelle.
That’s when their father called the police. The police arrived swiftly at 10:15 PM and discovered footprints in the snow around the windows. No signs of struggle or forced entry could be found, yet with the snow on the ground, it was unlikely that Jonelle would have gotten far without her shoes in the snow.
Where was Jonelle?
Early Investigations and Public Attention
After Jonelle’s mysterious disappearance, local law enforcement secretly monitored Jonelle’s birth mother, Terri Vierra-Martinez, without letting her know that her daughter had vanished.
A decade later, in 1994, Jonelle was legally declared dead.
In 1997, a heartfelt letter came to the Matthews from Terri, seeking permission to visit Jonelle. Unbeknownst to her, Jonelle was dead. She had hired a search consultant in an attempt to locate Jonelle, and the Matthews had to share the dreadful news.
Despite the tragic circumstances, this led to the families forming a bond. Jonelle’s parents and sister moved on with their lives, living in different corners of the world, always carrying Jonelle’s memory in their hearts.
When Jonelle Matthews disappeared, it shook her community to the core, but it didn’t stop there. It caught the eye of the Greeley Tribune, which started covering the story from the get-go, bringing the mystery of Jonelle’s sudden disappearance to every breakfast table in town.
Jonelle’s case even received national attention. The story was so gripping that even President Ronald Reagan mentioned Jonelle in a speech on March 7, 1985. She wasn’t just a local girl who vanished; she became a symbol for missing children nationwide, her name even found its way into the Congressional Record for the United States House of Representatives.
In an effort to spread the word and perhaps find Jonelle, her face started showing up on milk cartons across the country. It might sound strange today, but back then, before social media, this was one of the ways people tried to find missing kids. It was a silent plea for help at breakfast tables nationwide, staring back at folks as they poured their morning cereal.
While the country was looking for Jonelle, the Matthews family was trying to navigate a world without her. They held a memorial service at their local church, planting a chokecherry tree in front of Franklin Middle School in Jonelle’s memory. Unfortunately, the tree died after a few years and a plaque bearing Jonelle’s name also disappeared, almost mirroring the heartbreaking mystery of Jonelle herself.
The Case Goes Cold
Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, and with all eyes of the nation watching, the case of Jonelle Matthews led to a dead end. They had chased every lead, followed every hunch, but the trail went cold.
Even the footprints left in the snow outside the Matthews’ home, the only clues left by the kidnapper, had been carefully swept over with a rake, leaving investigators with more questions than answers. It was like trying to complete a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. With every passing day, hope dimmed, and the bustling activity around the investigation slowly faded into a grim waiting game.
The impact on the Matthews family and the Greeley community was profound. Imagine your friend, sister, or daughter disappearing one day and never coming back. The Matthews’ home, once filled with laughter and joy, was now a house of mourning.
The community rallied around them, but the loss was felt by everyone. In school, students struggled to concentrate, their minds filled with worry for Jonelle. At local events, her absence was a reminder of the tragedy that had struck their small town. The unresolved case of Jonelle Matthews turned Greeley from a quiet, safe town into a community living under a cloud of fear and sorrow.
Discovery of Jonelle’s Remains
On a normal Tuesday afternoon, July 23, 2019, some gas workers installing a pipeline stumbled upon something out of the ordinary. They found human remains near a quiet crossroads, about fifteen miles southeast of Jonelle’s home.
It’s a spot you might miss if you blinked while passing by, hidden among the vast expanses of rural Weld County, the same county that Jonelle disappeared from. It was a discovery that sent shockwaves through the community and breathed new life into a long-stalled case.
When the found remains were taken to the Weld County Coroner’s Office, they ran DNA tests and confirmed what many had feared – they had found Jonelle’s body. The forensic report confirmed that Jonelle had tragically died from a gunshot wound to the head.
News of this discovery hit Jonelle’s parents and the entire community like a ton of bricks. The cold case that had haunted the town for years was suddenly back in the spotlight.
But, with this heartbreaking discovery also came a renewed commitment to finding justice for Jonelle. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke took the lead, rallying his team to breathe new life into the investigation. This wasn’t just about solving a mystery anymore – it was about honoring Jonelle’s memory and ensuring that justice was served.
Steven Pankey Becomes a Person of Interest
On September 13, 2019, the Greeley Police Department dropped a bombshell. They pointed the finger at Steven Pankey, a guy who used to live in Greeley and who even ran for governor in Idaho, as a key suspect in the kidnapping and death of Jonelle Matthews.
Steven Pankey was a Greeley resident, who later ran for governor in Idaho. He lived just a few miles away from Jonelle Matthews’ home and was even a youth pastor at her church. In 2019, Greeley police declared him a person of interest in Jonelle’s abduction and murder.
They searched his Idaho condo, believing he could be responsible for Jonelle’s fate. But Steven denied knowing Jonelle or her family, stating that he was out of town visiting family on the day she disappeared. Cops didn’t buy his story, and in 2020, he was indicted on first-degree murder and kidnapping charges. He was 69 years old at the time of his indictment.
But here’s where it gets really twisted. Steven’s ex-wife, Angela Hicks, shed some light on his weird behavior around the time of Jonelle’s disappearance. According to Hicks, they did indeed leave town two days after Jonelle went missing, a trip which she says was unexpected.
Once they were back, Pankey began showing an unusual interest in Jonelle’s case, forcing Hicks to read newspaper articles about it. She even mentioned him digging in their yard around that time and a random car fire on their property.
And it didn’t stop there. At a church service, when a minister expressed hope that Jonelle would be found, Hicks heard Pankey call him a false prophet. And years later, at his own son’s funeral, Steven made a chilling statement: “I hope God didn’t allow this to happen because of Jonelle Matthews.”
So, Steven Pankey was put on trial in October 2021, but it ended in a mistrial due to a hung jury. They couldn’t agree on whether he was guilty of kidnapping and murder. The jury did, however, find him guilty of making false statements to police. His defense attorney argued that his obsessive interest in the case was due to Asperger syndrome.
Second Trial and Verdict
After the first trial didn’t seal the deal, the case swung around for a second go. This time, Steven Pankey was on trial again, faced with the grave accusations of first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping of Jonelle.
Now, every defendant gets to have their side of the story told, and that’s where Steven’s lawyers stepped in. Their game plan was simple: focus on the lack of physical evidence. They pointed out the fact that there were no fingerprints, DNA, or anything else that directly tied Pankey to the crime. They were trying to create doubt in the jury’s mind, that maybe, just maybe, the police had got the wrong guy.
But the jury didn’t buy it. They took in all the evidence, mulled it over, and came back with a unanimous verdict – Pankey was guilty of first-degree felony murder. It was Halloween of 2022 when they dropped this bombshell.
The result? Pankey got handed a 20-year to life sentence. He’s currently tucked away at the Bent County Correctional Facility in Colorado, and he won’t have a shot at getting out until 2042 when he’ll be a ripe old age of 91.
When the verdict came in, Jonelle’s dad, the Matthews family, and everyone in the community felt a mix of emotions. There was relief that justice was served, but also a deep sadness for Jonelle, who was robbed of her life too soon.
Jonelle’s case sent shockwaves through the community and the whole country, leading to changes in how we protect our young girls. Her death was a wake-up call, and it sparked a push for better safety measures. People started paying more attention to their surroundings, parents started having serious talks with their kids about personal safety, and schools began implementing new safety programs.
The journey to justice for Jonelle Matthews was a long one, taking nearly four decades to reach the finish line. But this case, as heart-wrenching as it was, showed us that no matter how much time passes, we shouldn’t give up hope. It brought to light the importance of persisting in solving cold cases, those unsolved crimes that often seem forgotten.
The tragic story of Jonelle Matthews, a 12-year-old girl whose life was cut short so brutally, leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. But in its wake, there’s a spark of hope. Hope that other unsolved cases, other “Jonelles” out there, might also find resolution. This case stands as a reminder that we should never stop searching for the truth, no matter how elusive it may seem.
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