An Idaho man who twice unsuccessfully ran for governor has been charged with murdering a 12-year-old Colorado girl who disappeared more than 35 years ago, authorities said.
Steven Dana Pankey, 69, of Meridian, was arrested Monday on charges of first-degree murder, second-degree kidnapping and related counts in the death of Jonelle Matthews, his former neighbor in Greeley, who vanished from her home on December 20, 1984, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke announced Tuesday.
Court documents obtained by CNN show Pankey had lived roughly two miles away from Jonelle’s home when she disappeared and about 10 miles away from where her body was found in July 2019 in a desolate field southeast of Greeley.
The girl’s cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head, police said, and she was the victim of a homicide.
Rourke told CNN there’s “no definitive” DNA link between the girl’s remains and Pankey, who “watched school children walk home” from where Jonelle went to middle school and admitted owning a gun in 1984, according to the indictment.
Pankey also “intentionally inserted himself” in the decades-long search for the girl, claiming to have knowledge of the crime that became “inconsistent and incriminating” over time, court documents show.
Pankey, an unsuccessful Idaho gubernatorial candidate in 2014 and 2018, also searched for information about the girl’s death on the internet and then tried to delete evidence of them when Greeley police contacted him about the girl’s death last year, the indictment states.
Pankey told the Idaho Statesman in September 2019 that he was under investigation in the girl’s unsolved slaying, but denied knowing her or her family.
“I never met Jonelle, I never met her family, I didn’t know she existed or disappeared until Wednesday, Dec. 26 [in 1984],” Pankey told the newspaper.
Pankey left Greeley in 1987 and had not returned to Colorado since he told the newspaper.
But Pankey and the girl’s families attended the same church and he made statements to investigators revealing “intimate knowledge about the commission of the crime” that had not been made public, Rourke said.
Pankey, who was ordered held without bail in Ada County Jail, is awaiting extradition to Colorado. Pankey’s attorney said he expects him to be vindicated in court.
“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,” attorney Anthony Viorst told KUSA. “I anticipate he will be exonerated of all charges.”
Decades earlier, Jonelle Matthews’ picture had been printed on milk cartons as part of a national missing children campaign during the 1980s.
“Always in the back of your head you might have a little hope,” Jonelle’s older sister, Jennifer Mogensen, said of a potential break in the case. “We’re extremely grateful we’re getting this next step toward justice.”
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