Steven Pankey Indictment in Jonelle Matthews murder. Photo: Denver Westword
Steven Pankey Indictment in Jonelle Matthews murder. Photo: Denver Westword

It's been nearly 36 years since 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews disappeared from her family's Greeley home the night of Dec. 20, 1984.

But now one of Greeley's oldest and most puzzling cold cases continues to heat up — most recently with the Oct. 12 arrest of Steven Dana Pankey, a 69-year-old Idaho man indicted on kidnapping and murder charges in the case.

Here's what we've learned about Steven Pankey so far.

Steven Pankey's background

Steven Pankey, 69, was born in California to Dana Pankey Jr. and his wife, Ruth. Dana Pankey Jr. was a minister — as was his father, evangelist and reverend Dr. Dana Pankey Sr. From 1941 to 1942, Dr. Dana Pankey Sr. served as pastor of Greeley's Bethel Baptist Church, according to historic newspapers.

In the early 1970s, Steven Pankey and some members of his extended family lived in the Greeley area, according to the grand jury's indictment and newspaper accounts from that time. Steven Pankey lived in Weld County in the 1970s before a stint in the Army that took him to Louisiana's Fort Polk, according to a 1975 Greeley Tribune article about an injury lawsuit Pankey filed that in the county that year. By 1977, Pankey was back in Greeley and working as a salesman at a Chevrolet car dealership, according to Coloradoan.

Steven Pankey's connections to Jonelle Matthews

Photo: Daily Mail
Photo: Daily Mail

He left the church around June of 1978, and in the summer of that same year, Jonelle’s trusted adults became a part of the congregation. On December 20, 1984, Jonelle Matthews vanished from her Greeley, Colorado, home. According to his indictment, Pankey lived about two miles away from the Matthews home during the time of Jonelle’s disappearance. Angela Hicks, his then-wife, told police how Pankey took her on an unexpected trip right after the girl’s disappearance and that he also dumped the family dogs before the trip.

She stated that Pankey listened to the radio for news about Jonelle’s disappearance on the drive home and forced her to read him news from newspapers on the same topic. Pankey also reportedly dug up his yard on their return, and there was the mysterious case of a car bursting into flames which Pankey disposed of at a local salvage yard.

Over the years, the police said that Pankey had “intentionally inserted himself into the investigation” claiming to have information about the crime. Yet, the former political candidate’s words seem to point all fingers back at him, implicating him for the heinous murder instead. He allegedly kept asking for immunity in exchange for knowledge about Jonelle’s disappearance. He also kept searching for information about Jonelle on the internet and has been reported to make statements that made others believe that he knew Jonelle was dead.

Furthermore, the police claimed that Pankey had information about a crucial piece of evidence – a rake used to sweep away footprints in the snow – which the police had not disclosed to the public. While the search was ongoing, Steve Pankey moved to Oklahoma and then to Idaho, where he ran twice for governor in 2014 and 2018. In July 2019, excavators installing a pipeline about 15 miles southwest of Jonelle’s home discovered human remains. The Weld County Coroner’s Office used DNA evidence to confirm that the remains were Jonelle’s. The medical examiner also found out that the cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head, reported by The Cinema Holic.

Superman Steve and his thirst for power

In 2004, he ran as a write-in candidate for Lincoln County sheriff and lost. An article by The Colorado Sun says,

“A Times-News article from the time paints Pankey as a mysterious new arrival to Lincoln County who suddenly became a regular at public meetings in the area. When asked what he did for a living, Pankey reportedly told people he was a board member of two family trusts, according to the Times-News.”

Four years later, in 2008, he ran as a Constitution Party candidate for Lincoln County sheriff. He lost again.

In 2010, he sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Idaho. He lost again.

In 2014, he ran for the Idaho Governor seat as part of the Constitution party and lost. The party denounced him after a letter he wrote to the Attorney General in support of gay rights. By that point Steve had divorced Angela and come out as gay — but insisted that he’s first and foremost “Christian and celibate.”

In 2018, he ran in the Republican primary for Governor and garnered just over 1% of votes.

In June 2020, already under investigation for Jonelle’s murder, he ran for sheriff in Twin Falls county. He lost that race too, said Medium.

Where is Steve Pankey now?

Photo: KREM
Photo: KREM

Right after Jonelle’s remains were discovered, detectives traveled to Pankey’s residence to question him, but he refused to talk to the police. In September 2019, authorities executed a warrant to search Pankey’s condo in Idaho upon suspicion of his involvement in the crime. On October 13, 2020, the police announced that Pankey had been indicted on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping in Jonelle’s death.

His indictment also presented 26 reasons why Pankey was being suspected and accused of Jonelle’s abduction and murder. His formal charge indicted him on five counts related to Jonelle’s death: murder in the first degree after deliberation, murder in the first degree/felony murder, second-degree kidnapping, and two crime of violence charges.

Pankey claimed that he had no idea about Jonelle’s disappearance as he had left Greeley to visit his parents in California in the early hours of December 21, 1984. He said that he heard of Jonelle’s disappearance only after he returned, several days later. This statement contradicted his ex-wife’s account, who told police that the California trip took place after the disappearance.

After his indictment, Pankey pleaded not guilty to the charges, choosing to take his case to trial. The judge has set the 15-day trial to begin on July 12, 2021. A trial readiness conference has been scheduled for June 30, 2021, and a motions hearing is scheduled for May 28 this year.

Pankey’s attorney said that he intends to file a change of venue within 21 days as a Colorado court can change the trial’s location if it’s found that a “fair or expeditious trial cannot take place in the current county or district.” Currently, Pankey is being held at the Weld County Jail on a $5 million cash-only bond.

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