Jonelle Matthews Case: Man Charged in 1984 Murder Put His Own Name on Person of Interest List, Prosecutors Say

The body of Jonelle Matthews was discovered at a construction site in 2019 after the case had gone cold for several decades. Last October, Steve Pankey was charged with abducting and killing her. But how did he end up on the person of interest list?

It was a missing persons case that had gone cold for three-and-a-half decades. Jonelle Matthews vanished without a trace after performing in a school Christmas concert in 1984. She was dropped off at her home in Greeley, Colorado, and never seen again.

The 12-year-old’s disappearance gained national attention. Her picture appeared on milk cartons. Former President Ronald Reagan mentioned her in a speech about missing children.

Then, in 2019, Jonelle’s body was discovered by construction workers laying a new pipeline 20 miles from where she lived. Inside Edition spoke to her sister, Jennifer, at the time.

“It’s bittersweet. It’s the closure that we were always hoping for, but now raises other questions as well,” she said.

One questioned that remained: Who could have committed such a monstrous act?

Last October, authorities arrested 69-year-old Steve Pankey. Police say he kidnapped Jonelle at gunpoint before killing her. He has pleaded not guilty and previously denied having anything to do with it.

"I voluntarily gave my DNA. I offered to take a polygraph,” Pankey said. "I've never met Jonelle Matthews.”

In the years following Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey became a perennial political candidate in Idaho. He unsuccessfully ran numerous times for sheriff and governor.

A new episode “48 Hours” is diving into the strange and tragic case. Inside Edition spoke with correspondent Richard Schlesinger about how Pankey became a suspect.

"Steve Pankey sort of only has himself to blame for becoming the number one suspect. He inserted himself into this case for reasons known only to him,” Schlesinger said. "He seemed to know about this case more than he should, and he kept contacting the police and he kept telling them things. He submitted a list of people he thought should be persons of interest and put his own name on it."

Pankey’s attorney claims his client has an alibi for the night Jonelle disappeared.

"He was at home that night with his wife and child,” his attorney said.

"The defense's position is that, you know, Pankey just loves the limelight and he's obsessed with true crime and wants to be part of this case, but that he's not a murderer," Schlesinger said.

“The Kidnapping of Jonelle Matthews” airs Saturday night on CBS.