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Former candidate for ID governor investigated in 1984 Colorado cold case killing

Former candidate Steve Pankey under investigation for murder

Steve Pankey, who ran in the 2018 primary for governor, is under investigation in the 1984 murder of a 12-year-old girl in Colorado. He has not been charged yet. He speaks with Idaho Statesman reporter Ruth Brown.
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Steve Pankey, who ran in the 2018 primary for governor, is under investigation in the 1984 murder of a 12-year-old girl in Colorado. He has not been charged yet. He speaks with Idaho Statesman reporter Ruth Brown.

A former candidate for Idaho governor says he is under investigation in the killing of a 12-year-old girl in Colorado 35 years ago.

Authorities last week searched the Twin Falls home of 68-year-old Steve Pankey, serving him a warrant that said investigators had probable cause to believe he kidnapped and killed Jonelle Matthews in 1984.

Jonelle was reported missing from her home in Greeley, north of Denver, on Dec. 20, 1984, after returning from performing a Christmas concert with her classmates, according to the Denver Post. At the time, Pankey and his former wife lived about 2 miles away.

Pankey, a 2014 Constitution Party candidate for governor who also ran in the 2018 Republican primary, disclosed the investigation this week in interviews with the Idaho Statesman. The search, Pankey said, came about a month after he gave police a DNA sample.

Pankey told the Statesman on Thursday that he was shocked when police searched his home. The Twin Falls Police Department verified Thursday that it had executed the warrant on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at Pankey’s condo in the 300 block of Elm Street North.

A SWAT team arrived, rifles in hand, to search his cars and his condo, and the team seized his electronic devices and financial documents, Pankey said.

Though Jonelle was reported missing in 1984, it wasn’t until July 23 of this year that her body was found, according to Greeley police.

Jonelle Matthews mug.jpg
Jonelle Matthews Handout photo

A construction crew found remains while excavating in rural Weld County, which includes Greeley, for a pipeline. Once her remains were identified, the police department issued a news release saying that the case was now a homicide investigation.

Since Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey said, investigators have asked multiple times to talk to him about her. He said he has repeatedly told them that he won’t speak without his attorney.

The Statesman reached out to the Greeley Police Department for comment on Thursday and did not receive a response. The department did issue a brief statement Friday in which it called Pankey “a person of interest in the murder investigation of Jonelle Matthews.”

Pankey said he wants his story to be heard in case he is arrested. As of Thursday, no criminal charges had been filed.

Pankey’s story

Pankey said he had brushes with the law in Colorado before Jonelle’s disappearance that led police to mistrust him.

He said he moved to Greeley in 1973. In 1977, when he was 26, he was accused of what he called “date rape” by a 23-year-old woman he was seeing.

He maintains the sex was consensual. He was criminally charged, but the charge was later dismissed by prosecutors.

At the time, Pankey was a youth minister at Sunny View Church of the Nazarene in Greeley. Pankey said he had gone to church with many people who knew Jonelle Matthews’ family, but he did not. After being charged, he left the position.

Pankey said he had a bad relationship with Greeley authorities afterward. “Once you’re accused of something like date rape, you’re forever stigmatized,” he said.

He said he was charged over his years in Colorado with as many as 20 other “arbitrary” misdemeanors, such as battery and harassment by phone, and went to trial multiple times. He said he “won” all the trials.

The Statesman could not immediately verify that. Colorado courts do not have an online records system, so the Statesman on Thursday requested via U.S. mail copies of Pankey’s criminal charges in Weld County.

On the night Jonelle went missing, Pankey said, he was home with his then-wife. His 1980 Toyota Corolla was packed to visit family in California for the Christmas holiday. They planned to leave at 5 a.m. the next day for the drive to Big Bear Lake to visit his parents.

They returned to Colorado on Dec. 26, 1984, he said, and heard the news of a missing child on the radio.

“I never met Jonelle, I never met her family, I didn’t know she existed or disappeared until Wednesday, Dec. 26 (1984),” Pankey said.

But he said he met with an FBI agent at the Greeley police station shortly after he returned, because he heard from his father-in-law, who worked for a cemetery, that someone had asked about getting rid of a body. The comments made him suspicious given Jonelle’s disappearance, he said, so he reported them to the FBI rather than to local police.

Pankey said he left Greeley in 1987 and hasn’t been back to Colorado since.

And except for that meeting with the FBI, Pankey said he has never been formally interviewed by police about Jonelle’s disappearance, although they have tried. Pankey said two Greeley detectives came to his condo around Aug. 15 and asked to interview him, but he told them that he would speak to them only if his attorney was present. The detectives then left.

A few days later, on Aug. 19, he said, law enforcement asked him for a DNA sample, and he gave it.

Pankey said he also has volunteered to take a polygraph test.

Why Pankey says he’s talking

Pankey told the Statesman he was sure that after police had his DNA, they would stop investigating him. He was surprised when they didn’t.

So, Pankey said, he decided to speak publicly now, because of his concerns about law enforcement’s ideas about him, and because he is a public figure in light of his runs for office.

He gave the Statesman a copy of the search warrant, signed on Sept. 3 by Idaho Magistrate Judge Calvin Campbell.

“I’m trying to be transparent,” he said. “... I have nothing to hide.”

Pankey said he has great empathy for the Matthews family. Pankey’s youngest son, Carl, a 20-year-old college student, was shot and killed by his girlfriend in 2008 in Phoenix.

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Reporter Ruth Brown covers the criminal justice and correctional systems in Idaho. She focuses on breaking news, public safety and social justice. Prior to coming to the Idaho Statesman, she was a reporter at the Idaho Press-Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian and the Idaho Falls Post Register.
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