Former Gubernatorial Candidate Indicted in Killing of 12-Year-Old Girl Over 35 Years Ago

Steven Dana Pankey (right) in 1984. Pankey, a former Idaho gubernatorial candidate, has been indicted on murder and kidnapping charges in 1984 killing of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.
Weld County District Attorney's Office

A former candidate for Idaho governor was indicted in the 1984 killing of a 12-year-old girl from Greeley, Colorado, according to reports. Steve Pankey, 69, was arrested at his home in Meridan, Idaho and is awaiting extradition back to Colorado, where his trial is expected to take place, according to court documents.

Pankey is accused of kidnapping and killing Jonelle Matthews, who went missing from her home on Dec. 20, 1984, court documents said. He was indicted by a grand jury Oct. 9 on charges including two counts of first-degree murder, second-degree kidnapping and crime of violence charges relating to the girl's kidnapping and death, according to the indictment. The young girl's remains were found at a pipeline site in a rural field on July 24, 2019, nearly 35 years after she disappeared.

Investigators found the cause of her death to be "a gunshot to the head," and the case was ruled a homicide, the indictment said. Shortly after, the police department announced the case was a homicide investigation and in August of this year, the Weld County District Attorney's office announced a grand jury investigation.

Michael Rourke, Weld County District Attorney, said there is "no definitive" DNA link between Pankey and the girl's remains, CNN reported. Pankey says he never met Jonelle and did not even know she existed until Dec. 26, 1984.

In an interview with The Idaho Statesman on Sept. 2019, Pankey openly discussed the investigation. He told the outlet that he was "shocked" when police searched his home, which involved a SWAT team that seized Pankey's electronic devices and financial documents.

Angela Hicks, his wife at the time of the young girl's disappearance, said the couple's Dec. 22 trip to Pankey's parents home in Calfornia for the Christmas holiday, two days after Jonelle's disappearance, was "unexpected."In the indictment, Hicks claims that on the drive home Pankey was "uncharacteristically" listening to the radio and searching for news accounts of Jonelle's disappearance.

When the couple returned, Pankey apparently began digging a hole in their backyard and, two days later, a car on their property burst into flames, which Pankey later "disposed of at a local salvage yard," the indictment read.

Pankey told the Statesman that he had only learned of Jonelle's disappearance when they returned back to Colorado from their holiday trip.

Pankey is believed to have taken Jonelle "against her will" from her home between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 20, 1984, according to court documents.Prior to the girl's disappearance, Pankey had allegedly "watched school children walk home from Franklin Middle School" where Jonelle was in the 7th grade at the time, according to the court documents.

Jonelle's autopsy revealed she died from a gunshot wound –– and the District Attorneys office says Pankey owned a firearm in 1984, documents show.

The former political candidate had also allegedly "intentionally inserted himself in the investigation many times over the years, claiming to have knowledge of the crime, which grew incriminating and inconsistent over the years," according to the indictment. One specific instance where Pankey had allegedly known about and withheld a crucial piece of evidence from law enforcement involved details of a "rake used to obliterate shoe impressions in the snow," the indictment said.

In a 1999 pleading filed with the Idaho Supreme Court, Pankey had argued that, "without a deal, this case would never be solved." The indictment also said that Pankey had "repeatedly demanded immunity in exchange for information he claimed to possess about the murder."

In the 2019 interview, Pankey told the Statesman that he had brushes with the law before Jonelle's disappearance that led police to mistrust him, the outlet reported. In 1974, when he was 26 years old, Pankey was accused of "date rape" by a 23-year-old woman he was seeing at the time. The outlet reported that Pankey was criminally charged but those charges were later dismissed by prosecutors. Pankey maintained that the sex was consensual.

At the time of those charges, Pankey was a youth minister at Sunny View Church of the Nazarene in Greeley. Pankey told the outlet that he had attended church with many acquaintances of Jonelle's family but never knew her family. After the assault charges, he left his position at the church, the outlet reported. The church was not available when contacted by Inside Edition Digital.

Police have been focusing on Pankey since mid-2018, which prompted a review of evidence and interviews, CNN reported.

At the time of her disappearance, Pankey lived two miles from Jonelle's home –– about 10 miles north of where her body was found over three decades later, court documents show.Pankey left Greeley in 1987 and went on to run as a gubernatorial candidate in Idaho for the 2014-2018 term, according to his campaign website.

He graduated from Aims community college in Greeley with a minor in criminal justice. A part of his platform, Pankey was a self-described "Christian conservative" and an "ardent supporter of the constitution." Inside Edition Digital called the phone number associated with the campaign website but it went straight to voicemail.

Inside Edition Digital contacted Pankey's lawyer, Anthony J. Viorst, was not available to comment. Pankey is being held without bond in Ada County Jail pending extradition back to Colorado.

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