Earlier that evening, she had sang Christmas songs with the Honor Choir at a concert at her school. Her friend’s father took the young girl home around 8 p.m. Jonelle was home alone, her mother out of state taking care of her own mother, and her father attending Jonelle’s older sister’s basketball game.
Jim Matthews, Jonelle’s father, returned home that night to find Jonelle missing. Police would find footprints in the snow outside the windows of the house, with what appeared to be rake marks attempting to hide them, Jim told “48 Hours” in August of this year. Those footprints were the only physical evidence investigators found at the Matthews home.
When police ran out of leads, they turned their attention to Jim, who was eventually cleared as a suspect. Decades passed without answers to what happened to young Jonelle, even with continued investigations and putting her picture on milk cartons. That is, until police zeroed in on Steven Pankey, who lived in Greeley with his family just two miles from the Matthews home at the time Jonelle disappeared.
Pankey regularly had minor run-ins with the law, typically stemming from public arguments. In one example, Pankey reportedly was accused of creating a nuisance and harassment at a local bank in Greeley. His former defense attorney, Anthony Viorst, told “48 Hours” that Pankey “argued with a bank teller and the police were called.”
“That’s the kind of thing that’s happened to Mr. Pankey over the years. He’s had periodic sort of spats with people because he is an irascible, prickly guy,” Viorst added.
A few years after Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey and his family moved several times, eventually settling in Idaho where he ran for several offices, including sheriff, municipal council, lieutenant governor, and governor, though he was never elected.
In Idaho, Pankey also had run-ins with the police, and mentioned Jonelle’s case in several court filings. In 1999, he told the Idaho Supreme Court that the conviction stemming from the incident at the bank was “an attempt to force” him “to become an informant” in Jonelle’s case. He also claimed in court filings that he was afraid he could “get the death penalty for revealing the location of Ms. Matthews body.”
Still, Pankey wasn’t connected to Jonelle’s disappearance for another two decades. In July 2019, oil and gas workers found Jonelle’s remains in an unincorporated area in Weld County, Colorado, People reported. A year later, in October 2020, Pankey was arrested following for Jonelle’s murder following a grand jury indictment.
Viorst, Pankey’s defense attorney at the time, told “48 Hours” that there was “no indication that he committed this murder, no indication that he had anything to do with burying the body.”
The indictment against Pankey alleged he knew about a rake used to hide the footprints outside the Matthews house the night Jonelle disappeared.
Pankey was originally tried in 2021, but it ended in a mistrial when a jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict. A jury did find him guilty of false reporting in 2021, however. He was convicted of felony murder and second-degree kidnapping on October 30, 2022.