6 Things To Know About The Kidnapping And Murder Of 12-Year-Old Jonelle Matthews

It took over 30 years to find the man responsible for the disappearance of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.

January 25, 2023
Jonelle Matthews, 12, pictured here smiling, went missing on Dec. 20, 1984. Her body wasn't found until 2019.

It took over 30 years to find the man responsible for the disappearance of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.

Photo by: Greenley Police Department

Greenley Police Department

Jonelle went missing at Christmastime in 1984

The 12-year-old student had just performed in a middle school honors choir concert in Greeley, Colorado on Dec. 20, 1984 when she went missing from her home. There was little evidence, according to reports — just some footprints in the snow that somebody had tried to conceal with a rake.

Her body wasn’t found until July 24, 2019, when crews digging a pipeline found her body in rural Weld County, Colorado — the same county from where she went missing. She was reportedly wearing the same outfit as when she’d gone missing 34 years prior. Somebody had shot her in the head.

The Mayor of Greeley was also an investigator on the case

According to CBS News, the town’s mayor, John Gates, was 27 and a Greeley police officer at the time of Matthews’ disappearance. He responded to the Matthews home after Jonelle’s father returned home at about 9:30 p.m. and realized his daughter was missing. Gates's job that night was to canvass the neighborhood and ask if anyone had seen or heard anything suspicious.

Somebody inserted himself into the case early on

Steve Pankey reportedly left Colorado and headed for California with his wife and daughter the day after Jonelle went missing. According to a 2021 article from The Denver Post, Pankey was obsessively listening to news reports on the way back to Colorado from California in an attempt to get news about the case. Within weeks of Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey was claiming to have information about the case and said he’d share it in exchange for immunity. He also claimed to be involved in another murder in 1970.

Pankey was arrested in 2020

Despite the fact that Pankey didn’t own a gun and was apparently at home with his family on the night of the shooting, he was arrested after Jonelle’s body was found in 2019. The case grew cold not long after Jonelle’s disappearance, but police still had records of their interactions with Pankey. When investigators spoke to him again in 2019, Pankey reportedly asked for a lawyer and a “deal” immediately and refused to speak with the detectives.

Pankey’s attorney said there was another suspect

Pankey was indicted for Jonelle’s kidnapping and murder in 2020; the trial began in 2021. Pankey’s attorney said the man had Asperger's Syndrome and simply went overboard with a true crime obsession. Instead of Pankey, the attorney told the jury that the real suspect was a man named Norris Drake, who often visited his mother’s home across the street from the Matthews family. According to a Denver Post article, Drake had an obsession with young girls, and Pankey’s attorney painted him as the kidnapper and killer. Drake, who is now dead, was never charged or implicated in the crime.

Pankey was found guilty for kidnapping and murder

A Weld County, Colorado jury found Pankey guilty of murder, kidnapping, and making a false report in October 2021. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years. Pankey, now 71, is housed at the Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colorado. He will be eligible for parole in 2040, when he is 91 years old.

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