Second trial begins for man accused of 1984 kidnapping, murder of Jonelle Matthews

The second trial for Steve Pankey, the man accused of kidnapping and murdering a 12-year-old Greeley girl in 1984, is underway after the prosecution and defense made opening statements Friday.

“If the court affirms this frivolous matter, it is reasonable for the appellant to believe that he will receive the death penalty for revealing the location of Ms. Matthews’ body,” Weld District Attorney Michael Rourke began, quoting from a court filing Pankey made in an unrelated case in Idaho.

“About one week after the fact, I realized that a blanket or comforter or quilt was missing from the Matthews’ house. Some experiences are hard to forget,” Rourke continued, this time quoting from a letter Pankey wrote to the Weld District Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors will present to the jury the many statements Pankey, 71, has made over the 37 years since Jonelle Matthews’ disappearance on Dec. 20, 1984, Rourke said. He noted there is no DNA evidence in the case, as the technology didn’t yet exist. But, Rourke said, Pankey’s statements and behaviors over that time will lead the jury to one conclusion.

Defense attorney Peter Harris, however, insisted the case lacks the hard evidence needed to convict someone.

“Steve didn’t do this,” he began, enunciating and often pausing between statements. “There are deep problems with this case that go to the foundations of our criminal law and the principles behind them. You, after you hear the evidence in this case, are going to be the ones to put those principles into effect that protect the community from a miscarriage of justice.”

Pankey’s first trial last year ended in a hung jury on the kidnapping and murder charges. His defense attorney, Anthony Viorst, withdrew from the case, saying he wouldn’t have the time and energy for a second trial, which is scheduled to go into early November.

Jonelle was a seventh-grader at Franklin Middle School who sang in the honor choir. She sang with the choir for a televised performance on Dec. 20, 1984, at IntraWest Bank in downtown Greeley. A family friend whose daughter was close friends with Jonelle and sang in the choir gave Jonelle a ride home, dropping her off at her home.

Jonelle’s parents were away, as her mother went to visit family in California and her father went to watch her older sister’s basketball game. By the time her father returned home about an hour later, he couldn’t find Jonelle.

Jonelle took a message from a teacher at the Kersey school where her father was an administrator. The teacher later said if she knew she was talking with a 12-year-old girl, she’d have thought something was wrong and called the police, Rourke said.

The TV was on, as well as a space heater, and Jonelle’s shoes and pantyhose were there, signaling she made it home after the concert. After not hearing any response from her and not finding her around the house, Jim called the friend who had dropped her off. He also called several of Jonelle’s friends and, finally, the pastor at the church where they attended before calling police.

That call launched an investigation that spanned more than three decades, as Jonelle’s remains wouldn’t be found until July 2019, when oil and gas workers installing a pipeline found a skeleton and clothing. She was found wearing the same clothes she wore to the concert that night, with a single bullet hole in her skull.

No one working the case knew who Pankey was until Jan. 17, 1985, when Pankey called to speak with a detective, Rourke said. Pankey falsely identified himself as an ordained minister who had contact with someone who had knowledge about Jonelle. Pankey wanted information about the case in return for divulging what he knew. He further claimed to have evidence Jonelle was abducted and probably dead before she left the house.

He later went into the police department to speak with the detective, who found the meeting insignificant. Pankey, however, seemed to find it was an important meeting. In November 2019, he told a podcaster how pleasantly surprised he was about how well the interview went and that he had slept well for the first time in a long time, Rourke said.

Harris said the defense team will present evidence about true crime enthusiasts who call police when such a tragedy occurs and say all sorts of things true and false, understandable and not. Whatever Pankey or those around him have said, law enforcement never secured solid, corroborating evidence, Harris said.

Though prosecutors don’t have to prove a motive, Rourke said, it could be important to identifying the suspect and intent, as well as establishing a tie between Pankey and Jonelle.

When the Matthews family moved to Greeley in 1978, they joined the Sunny View Church of the Nazarene. A year earlier, Pankey took a member of the church on a long drive down rural Weld County roads. As a result, Rourke said — not mentioning certain details due to rules of evidence — an investigation was launched for criminal charges that were ultimately dismissed.

After the Greeley Tribune reported the investigation, however, Pankey was excommunicated from the church. Pankey returned to the church on several occasions, Rourke said, and was forced to leave. This chain of events instilled a hatred in Pankey for the church, its members and law enforcement.

The Matthews family, who never crossed paths with or knew of Pankey until 2019, were heavily involved in the church, often hosting after-service get-togethers at their home. They developed close friendships with other church members, including Russ Ross, the family friend who dropped Jonelle off the night she disappeared.

Ross had also worked with Pankey at the 7 Up distribution plant in Greeley around that time, when a conflict that developed into a lawsuit led to Pankey hating Ross and even testifying in his first trial last year that he thought Ross was “a jerk.”

Harris introduced to the jury an alternate suspect mentioned by the defense in the first trial: Norris Drake, who stayed with his mother across the street the night Jonelle went missing. Drake left the home in the time it was possible for him to have committed the kidnapping and murder, Harris said.

Harris also said Drake had babysat Jonelle, suggesting because she knew him, there were no signs of struggle. Described by many as “feisty,” Jonelle wouldn’t be the type not to put up a fight, Harris said.

But Jim and Gloria, Jonelle’s parents, both testified Friday that Drake had never babysat Jonelle. Because they were busy with church and work friends, the Matthews didn’t socialize much with the neighbors, including Drake’s mother across the street, they testified.

Pankey’s ex-wife has reported some of his strange behaviors and statements throughout the years, Rourke said, and will testify in the trial. Though Pankey has said he was at home the evening Jonelle went missing, preparing for a planned trip to see his parents in California, his ex-wife said the trip wasn’t planned. Instead, he walked in that evening and made a surprise announcement they’d be going to California, according to his ex-wife.

On the way back, his ex-wife has said, Pankey made her look for radio reports about Jonelle’s disappearance, and when they arrived in Greeley, they first stopped at Safeway, where Pankey made her panhandle for change to get newspapers about the disappearance.

Several years later, while living in Idaho, Pankey was approached by a police officer while he was filming a traffic stop that didn’t involve him, Rourke said. When the officer asked him to step away, Pankey answered not to mess with him and that he had “buried more people than you know.”

Pankey’s statements have also changed throughout the years and indicated a knowledge of the case that would suggest he committed the murder, Rourke said. Pankey repeatedly referred to Jonelle as dead before her remains were ever found, and he knew about a piece of evidence police withheld from the public: a rake had been used to obliterate shoeprints in the snow outside the Matthews’ home.

Pankey was arrested in October 2020, after he was indicted by a grand jury. The indictment highlighted Pankey’s suspicious statements and behavior alluding to Jonelle’s disappearance throughout the years, as well as his knowledge of the raking of the shoeprints.

Harris challenged the assertion Pankey’s knowledge of the withheld evidence indicated guilt, stating people were all over that block the next morning and could have seen and discussed the evidence with others around town.

Harris insisted the pressure to solve the case has caused prosecutors and law enforcement to make leaps of logic that don’t aid in finding the truth.

“At the end of the day, his words don’t prove the case,” Harris said.

Testimony in the case will continue at 8:30 a.m. Monday in Weld District Court.

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