Update: Steve Pankey was on Monday found guilty of second-degree kidnapping and felony murder in the case of a 12-year-old Colorado girl killed in 1984. He was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 20 years. The Coloradoan reports Jonelle Matthews' father spoke prior to sentencing and implored Pankey to confess, saying "the gates of heaven can still be open for you." In his own statement, Pankey replied, "I am a Christian. I will be in heaven. I am innocent, and this is not justice for Jonelle." No DNA evidence tied him to the crime, but the jury learned of incriminating statements Pankey made to his ex-wife and authorities from 1985 onward. Our original story from October 2020 follows:
A man who "intentionally inserted himself in the investigation" into the murder of a 12-year-old girl more than 30 years ago has now been arrested for the crime. Steven D. Pankey, 69, was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder and kidnapping in the 1984 disappearance of Jonelle Matthews from Greeley, Colo.—a case that "drew national attention for years," reports the Denver Post. Jonelle's body was found last year in a field in Weld County. District Attorney Michael Rourke said Tuesday that she was killed in the same clothes she was wearing on Dec. 20, 1984. She'd returned to an empty home that day after a choir performance.
Pankey, who lived nearby and watched students as they walked home from Jonelle's middle school, is believed to have taken her from the home at gunpoint before shooting her in the forehead, according to the indictment. Pankey, who showed an intense interest in the case, took a sudden trip to California immediately after the disappearance and began digging in his backyard on his return, the indictment reads. A vehicle on his property then "burst into flames" and he took it to a salvage yard, his ex-wife told authorities, per Denver Channel. She also said he wondered whether God had allowed the 2008 murder of his son "because of Jonelle Matthews," per the Post.
While there's no DNA evidence tying him to the case, investigators say Pankey sought immunity deals in exchange for information. They say he knew a rake was used to obscure footprints in the snow when Jonelle was taken, which was never revealed publicly, per the New York Times. Pankey was arrested at his home in Meridian, Idaho, on Monday, shortly after telling the Times-News that police were framing him. (Read more cold cases stories.)