Who killed Jonelle Matthews? What her suspected killer told jurors
[This story previously aired on January 8, 2022. It was updated on August 6.]
It was December 1984 when 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews vanished from her family’s Greeley, Colorado home. The only evidence left behind were shoeprints in the snow – shoeprints someone tried to erase with a garden rake. The case drew national attention.
More than three decades later, in 2019, Jonelle’s body was found by a crew digging a pipeline. In 2020, Steven Pankey, who says he never met Jonelle, was charged with murder after repeatedly making public statements that inserted him into the case, including drawing up a list of persons of interest with his own name on it. Pankey went on trial in October 2021.
Anthony Viorst, Pankey’s former attorney, says Pankey craves attention but is not a murderer.
“[T]here’s no indication that he committed this murder, no indication that he had anything to do with burying the body. Mr. Pankey wanted to be a person of interest. … Mr. Pankey loves the limelight … all of the statements that he has made about his culpability have been, ‘I didn’t do it,'” Viorst told “48 hours” correspondent Richard Schlesinger as he prepped for the trial.
At trial, Viorst told the jury that Pankey was a true-crime junkie. And Pankey himself took the stand.
“It was just me trying to be a big man, be in the case, OK? I had no knowledge,” Pankey said.
“It began as a series of lies, and it got bigger and bigger over the years,” Pankey told the jury. “One lie leads to another.”
If Pankey didn’t kill Jonelle Matthews, then who did?
A HAUNTING CASE
It had been nearly four decades since Jonelle Matthews was kidnapped from her home and murdered. Now, her parents were finally in a courtroom desperate for answers.
JIM MATTHEWS | Jonelle’s father [on the witness stand]: She could have been lured out of the house and gullible because she was 12 years old.
Kelly Werthmann: This was a moment that this community had been waiting for a long time.
Kelly Werthmann is a reporter and anchor for Denver’s CBS station, KCNC.
Kelly Werthmann: People were ready. But … it was intense.
It’s a case that has haunted the small Colorado city of Greeley.
Darla Jentzsch: We all lived with our front doors open.
Deanna Ross: We rode our bikes a lot around town.
Jonelle Matthews’ friends Darla Jentzsch and Deanna Ross remember growing up with Jonelle.
Deanna Ross: We had sleepovers, birthday parties. We just had a big group of friends.
It’s the kind of town realtors like to call “a great place to raise kids.”
Darla Jentzsch: I’m so fortunate that we were neighbors.
But just five days before Christmas, Greeley learned it could not hide from evil.
LOCAL NEWS REPORT: 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews disappeared from her Greeley home. … It’s believed she’s the victim of a kidnapping.
Darla Jentzsch: It was such a mystery, this whole thing happened.
Just like that, Darla lost her childhood friend.
Richard Schlesinger: Do you remember being afraid?
Darla Jentzsch: Oh, yeah. I remember being afraid.
Deanna Ross: As a community, it rocked Greeley.
LOCAL NEWS REPORT: Jonelle Matthews will turn 13 in two weeks. No one knows where she’ll spend her birthday.
Richard Schlesinger: You’d be the last people to whom something like this would happen, I would think.
Jim Matthews: Mmm.
Gloria Matthews: Yeah.
Jim and Gloria Matthews had moved to Greeley just six years earlier, to raise their young daughters Jennifer and Jonelle.
Jennifer Mogensen: We were happy.
Richard Schlesinger: Were you a close family?
Jim Matthews: Definitely. … Gloria was working at a restaurant. And I was an elementary principal. … We were very involved in our church. And we just had a very full life.
At least they did until that night — December 20. That’s when Jonelle went to sing in a school choir concert.
Jim Matthews: She was interested in any kind of performing thing.
Afterwards she got a ride home with Deanna Ross and Deanna’s father. That was about 8 p.m.
Deanna Ross: Jonelle needed a ride home … so she hopped in our truck and we took her home. … My dad waited until he saw her flick on the light. That was our sign that she made it inside and everything’s fine.
Richard Schlesinger: And you drove off thinking what?
Deanna Ross: That I’d see her the next day, at school.
Jim Matthews: I came home by myself.
Jim Matthews recalls arriving home at about 9: 30 p.m. and found that his daughter wasn’t there.
Richard Schlesinger: Did it occur to you that maybe she … had run away?
Jim Matthews: No, because I know my daughter well enough that number one, it’s Christmas time. She loves presents. She just loves the whole festivities of Christmas.
At first, he thought Jonelle was at a friend’s house, but after calling around and waiting about a half hour to an hour, Jim says he called police.
Jim Matthews: They sent two or three detectives out and started searching the house for clues.
Mayor John Gates: I remember that night like it was yesterday.
Greeley’s Mayor John Gates was 27 years old at the time, and a police officer. He was called to the scene.
Mayor John Gates: My assignment that night … was … going around the neighborhood, knocking on doors … asking them if they had seen or heard anything suspicious that evening.
No one had seen or heard anything, and the Matthews home, which was now a crime scene, offered few clues.
The only physical evidence were those footprints in the fresh snow. They were found just outside the house. And there was something odd about them.
Jim Matthews: Whoever did it, tried to rake their footprints.
Richard Schlesinger: And he was using, what, a garden rake?
Jim Matthews: Yeah, right out of my garage.
Richard Schlesinger: Oh, to cover them up.
Jim Matthews: Yeah, yeah.
Richard Schlesinger: Peculiar, huh?
Jim Matthews: [laughs] Yes.
There were no fingerprints and if there was DNA, law enforcement was still several years from being able to analyze it. With nothing else to go on, investigators focused on Jim Matthews himself.
Richard Schlesinger: What was it like for you to be considered a suspect in your daughter’s disappearance?
Jim Matthews: For the longest time I knew exactly what they were doing, and I respected it.
He even agreed to a lie detector test, with an FBI agent.
Jim Matthews: The number one interrogator west of the Mississippi.
Jim says the agent told him he failed.
Jim Matthews: I just kept telling him, I said, “Listen, I’m telling you the truth. I’m telling you everything I know.” Then they had another one with the local police. That’s when I started losing it. I said listen, “I have been very honest, I’ve been accessible to you any time you wanted, but I’m getting sick of this because I am innocent.”
Jim was eventually cleared, leaving no suspects or leads. A group of Greeley residents worked hard to keep Jonelle’s story alive.
Jim Matthews: The Rescue Jonelle Committee … made all kinds of things happen.
They made headlines. Jonelle became one of the first missing children whose photo appeared on milk cartons across America.
And even President Ronald Reagan got involved. He mentioned Jonelle in a speech about missing children.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN [March 7, 1985]: I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado. … five days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home.
But Jonelle’s family and friends could only attract that kind of attention for so long. With no real evidence of what happened to the 12-year-old, the case went cold. But Jonelle was far from forgotten.
Gloria Matthews: Everywhere we went I was always looking for her … I always had hope that I would find her. … in my dreams she always came home. You know, she always came home.
But in reality, there was no sign of Jonelle.
LOCAL NEWS REPORT: A major development to tell you about in a mystery that is more than three decades old.
And then on July 23, 2019, nearly 35 years after Jonelle’s disappearance, police finally had that breaking news to share.
Jennifer Mogensen: Wow.
Deanna Ross: It was a complete shock.
A crew digging a pipeline in a remote stretch of land just southeast of Greeley had discovered human remains with a gunshot wound to the head.
Mayor John Gates: They were confirmed by the coroner to be those of Jonelle Matthews.
It was agony for Jonelle’s mother Gloria, who could no longer hope her daughter would come home.
Gloria Matthews: We are going to know that she was murdered [crying].
The question was, who killed Jonelle?
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I heard that a girl was missing from Greeley, Colorado.
Police might have been closer to an answer than they knew.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I lived in Greeley, Colorado, from 1973 …
Steve Pankey was once a candidate for governor of Idaho.
STEVE PANKEY [Idaho Statesman political ad]: I’m one of the people who wants to represent you.
He was a person who sure was interested in the case.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I contacted the FBI.
And made himself a person of interest.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I knew more than I wanted to know, OK.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I told the FBI I want to talk to you. It may or may not have something to do with the Jonelle Matthews case.
A COLD CASE HEATS UP
In September 2019, just weeks after discovering the remains of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, the case that had been so cold for so long quickly heated up. Authorities searched a home in Twin Falls, Idaho.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: They’ve got full SWAT gear on. They’ve got rifles and they’re pointing them at me.
It belonged to Steven Pankey.
In a matter of days, the search was all over the news, but not because police were talking.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: Don’t spit in my face. Don’t accuse me …
It was Steven Pankey who started talking — to just about anyone who would listen, including CBS affiliate KMVT.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I’ve never met Jonelle Matthews … I’ve never met anybody in her family …
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: Make sure the viewers hear that … I voluntarily gave my DNA. I offered to take a polygraph.
Police won’t directly confirm any of that.
Kelly Werthmann interviewed Pankey for CBSDenver over FaceTime.
STEVE PANKEY [to Werthmann]: If I gave my DNA, that would be kinda like a knockout blow …
Kelly Werthmann: He really wanted to make himself clear that he was framed.
KELLY WERTHMANN: Did you kill Jonelle Matthews?
STEVE PANKEY: [Laughs] Absolutely not.
“48 Hours” tried to get our own interview with Pankey.
Richard Schlesinger: Would you let us talk to your client?
Anthony Viorst: No. I will not.
But by then, defense attorney Anthony Viorst had silenced his chatty new client.
Anthony Viorst: Mr. Pankey likes to talk. He does. … to some extent, we’re going to just have to face that.
Jonelle’s father Jim says the fast-breaking news about Pankey surprised him.
Jim Matthews: We had never heard the name Steve Pankey. … We were totally clueless about this guy.
But as it turns out, when Jonelle vanished in 1984, Pankey lived in Greeley — about two miles from the Matthew home.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: At the time I was married. And … I had a 5-year-old son.
Greeley was much smaller then and Pankey was known around town.
Mayor John Gates: I had met him in about the mid-1970s.
Richard Schlesinger: You remember that?
Mayor John Gates: I do. Yeah, he worked for my father. … yes, I remember meeting him.
Greeley Mayor and former police officer John Gates knew Steven Pankey, and says he was not considered a person of interest in the early days when Jonelle first disappeared.
Richard Schlesinger: Was Pankey questioned at all in the early days of this investigation?
Mayor John Gates: Not to my knowledge.
Anthony Viorst says his client has an alibi.
Richard Schlesinger: Where was he the night Jonelle Matthews disappeared?
Anthony Viorst: He was at home that night with his wife and child.
Pankey says the morning after Jonelle disappeared, he and his family left Greeley for five days.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: We went to California to be with my parents for Christmas.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: On the 26th we were driving back. And I heard on the car radio that a girl was missing from Greeley, Colorado. … of course, you know, you think that’s terrible, but lots of kids go missing, you know.
That’s what he says he thought at first, but a month after Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey suddenly inserted himself directly into the middle of this case and volunteered some information about Jonelle’s disappearance.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I contacted the Fort Collins FBI office. … I said … “I want to talk to you. It may or may not have something to do with the Jonelle Matthews case.”
Steve Pankey claims that seven days after Jonelle disappeared, his father-in-law — a groundskeeper at a Greeley cemetery — shared some disturbing information.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: He told me that a cop had contacted him and said that he had a body he wanted to be buried.
Pankey told KMVT that he shared the information with the FBI, because he feared that somehow someone might be trying to implicate him in Jonelle’s murder.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: I want to at least be on record that I talked to you, so I don’t get possibly an obstruction of justice charge.
It’s a wild sounding story and “48 Hours” can’t confirm it or even that he went to the FBI. Law enforcement records show that Pankey had other unrelated run-ins with Greeley police. They describe mostly minor and non-violent allegations, like creating a nuisance and harassment. In fact, the day before Jonelle disappeared, Pankey was arrested at a bank for harassment and criminal trespass.
Anthony Viorst: He argued with a bank teller and the police were called.
The police and court records of what happened with the charges are no longer available.
Anthony Viorst: That’s the kind of thing that’s happened to Mr. Pankey over the years. He’s had periodic sort of spats with people because he is an irascible, prickly guy.
But police clearly think it’s more than that and seem to be looking closely at Pankey’s past — possibly including a case from 1977, when a 26-year-old Pankey was charged with sexually assaulting a woman he met in church.
In a four-hour episode of the “Unfound” podcast recorded in November 2019, Pankey claims he was dating his accuser.
STEVE PANKEY [“Unfound” podcast]: In 1977, I was a youth pastor at the … church.
STEVE PANKEY [“Unfound” podcast]: She was 23 years old.
Anthony Viorst: There was a sexual encounter. And she later said it was nonconsensual.
The woman eventually asked that the case be dismissed.
Anthony Viorst: It has nothing to do with this case. Nothing. … he’s a firm adherent to the Ten Commandments, which include thou shalt not kill.
But Jim Matthews, who joined that same church not long after Pankey left, says there’s another commandment Pankey seems to be having trouble with: thou shalt not bear false witness.
Jim Matthews: He was not a youth worker at our church. He was the janitor.
Richard Schlesinger: Do you believe that he was a threat to children in that church?
Gloria Matthews: We don’t know.
But Anthony Viorst says he isn’t worried
Anthony Viorst: There’s no physical evidence whatsoever to connect Mr. Pankey to this crime. Zero physical evidence, OK?
John Gates knows the evidence is circumstantial, but he believes it is as strong as it is strange.
Mayor John Gates: This is … some of the most bizarre stuff I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been around the block.
THE SERIAL POLITICAL CANDIDATE
About two years after 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews vanished from her home in Greeley, Colorado, her family made the painful decision to pack up and leave town.
Jim Matthews: You have to go on with life. You can’t let this consume you.
Around that same time, Steven Pankey, his young son and his wife, who was pregnant with their second son, also left Greeley. The Pankey family bounced around from state to state for a while. In 1989, they settled in Idaho, but Pankey admits he could not stop thinking about Jonelle.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: It would be in the back of my mind about this case … so I called … the guy who lived next door … I just asked, “did they ever resolve that Jonelle Matthews thing?” And he said, no, not to his knowledge.
But Pankey might have been more than just curious. In 1999 he told the Idaho Supreme Court, after a conviction for once again causing a scene in a bank, that the conviction — which was dismissed years later — was in part an “attempt to force” him “to become an informant” in Jonelle’s disappearance. He also wrote that he feared he might “get the death penalty for revealing the location of” her body.
Richard Schlesinger: See, that’s weird. I mean, why would he say that if he didn’t know where Jonelle Matthews was buried?
Anthony Viorst: Well, here’s what I’ll say, Richard. I agree with you that it’s weird … It just makes zero sense. It’s just — he is a strange guy. … and we submit that … he never knew where the body was because he didn’t do this.
But over the years there was even more strange behavior, moments that, authorities believe add up to circumstantial evidence.
Richard Schlesinger: What did you think of him? How did he seem to you?
Kevin Schneider: Very odd.
Kevin Schneider says he met the Pankey family when they first moved to Idaho. His son was friends with Pankey’s son, Mark.
Richard Schlesinger: Did your son ever see any unusual things at the Pankey house when he was over there?
Kevin Schneider: Yes, he did. One time, I guess their family dog was doing a lot of barking, and it was irritating Steven. And he took duct tape and wrapped it around the dog’s muzzle.
Richard Schlesinger: Ohh.
Pankey denies he ever did that, but Kevin says Pankey’s son Mark was so unhappy living at home that the Schneiders took him in for about six years.
Kevin Schneider: He couldn’t take his dad.
In 2001, Pankey’s wife filed for divorce, and he moved to Shoshone, Idaho, where in 2004 without any experience with law enforcement, other than being arrested, he ran for sheriff.
He lost, but Pankey still wanted to be sheriff somewhere. In 2008, he thought about running in Twin Falls, where he went to church with Ryan Horsley, a political consultant.
Ryan Horsley: I was kind of confused because our local sheriff actually went to our church.
Richard Schlesinger: He wanted to run against … a fellow church member?
Ryan Horsley: Yeah. … it just seemed really weird that he didn’t have a grievance against our local sheriff … And so just seemed like he was just running just to run.
Pankey might have thought better about running in Twin Falls. In 2008, he ran for sheriff in Shoshone once again. And, once again, he didn’t come close to winning. But his political ambitions grew, and he became a serial candidate.
Ryan Horsley: He’s ran for lieutenant governor once. … he’s ran for governor two times. … And one of the times he ran for governor was a real dumpster fire.
Richard Schlesinger: What made that campaign a dumpster fire?
Ryan Horsley: He ran under the Constitutional Party. … at their state convention, he claimed that they tried to do an exorcism on him.
Richard Schlesinger: I’m sorry, did you say an exorcism?
Ryan Horsley: Yes.
Richard Schlesinger: I know that you’re a politician and not a priest, but did he seem in need of an exorcism?
Ryan Horsley: It just seemed strange. I was just kind of glued to the headlines this whole time on just his stories — that they just didn’t make sense.
For the record, the Constitution Party denies Pankey or anyone else was exorcised — at least by them. In 2018, Pankey made a second attempt at becoming governor and to no one’s surprise, he lost. Ryan Horsley says that’s when Pankey started collecting guns.
Ryan Horsley: Out of the blue he began, um, purchasing firearms … and later found out that Greeley Police Department had been contacting him regarding this murder investigation.
And six weeks after Jonelle’s remains were discovered, authorities were at Pankey’s front door with a search warrant.
STEVE PANKEY [to KMVT]: They searched this place, they took my laptop …
Pankey had an interesting next move: he ran for sheriff again.
Ryan Horsley: I think that was his last-ditch effort, honestly.
Richard Schlesinger: To do what?
Ryan Horsley: To halt any investigation, to halt him getting arrested.
It didn’t work.
DA MICHAEL ROURKE [to reporters]: It is with great honor today that we announce that the grand jury indicted an individual named Steven Dana Pankey for the kidnapping and murder of Jonelle Matthews.
On October 12, 2020, police arrested Steven Pankey for kidnapping and first-degree murder.
CHIEF MARK JONES [to reporters]: To the Matthews family, I pray that this news brings you some closure and hope as we continue to pursue justice for Jonelle and your family.
Defense attorney Anthony Viorst says the case against his client is just a weak and circumstantial collection of strange behaviors.
Anthony Viorst: I don’t like to divulge my defense, you know, on national television … but I don’t think it’s going to be any surprise when I tell you that they’ve got no motive whatsoever for this crime … there’s absolutely no indication Mr. Pankey knew this girl … knew where she lived … had any desire to kill her.
But the District Attorney’s Office felt they had enough evidence to go to trial. And on October 13, 2021, a jury was seated and ready to hear the case.
THE CASE AGAINST STEVEN PANKEY
In August 2019, nearly 35 years after Jonelle vanished, Gloria and Jim Matthews were finally able to lay her to rest.
Jim Matthews: We knew that we wanted to give her a dignified burial and … I’m not a real emotional person. But boy, just the floodgates opened up for both of us.
But there was no rest for the Matthews. They had to wait a little more than two years —until October 2021, for this moment: opening statements in the trial of Steven Pankey.
DA MICHAEL ROURKE: The search for justice for Jonelle begins today.
DA MICHAEL ROURKE: The evidence in this case will prove … that the defendant is guilty of murder in the first degree and second-degree kidnapping.
Greeley Mayor John Gates was on the witness list.
Richard Schlesinger: What were the challenges facing the prosecution?
Mayor John Gates: Well, I think from a law enforcement perspective, the fact that … the case was 37 years old. … The big thing in policing now is DNA. That, of course, doesn’t exist.
Richard Schlesinger: The problem is there’s no physical evidence.
Mayor John Gates: Right.
Richard Schlesinger: So, you’ve really gotta believe these prosecution witnesses to convict this guy.
Mayor John Gates: No question.
Of course, the prosecution also has Pankey’s own words. He spent years insisting he had vital information about what happened to Jonelle Matthews.
DA Michael Rourke: He wasn’t a person of interest. And yet he picks up the phone. And he calls Detective Jack Stotler and he identifies himself as a ordained Baptist minister. He claimed that he had contact with somebody who had information about Jonelle’s disappearance. But he didn’t give up the information.
“48 Hours” interviewed Pankey’s attorney Anthony Viorst as he was preparing for trial.
Richard Schlesinger: Why would he interject himself into the case?
Anthony Viorst: I can’t answer that because I can’t get into his head but, but I do think … it’s a combination of sort of obsessive-compulsive behavior and you know, perhaps even mental illness.
Mayor Gates thinks there’s plenty of evidence against Pankey.
Mayor John Gates: The most strong evidence to me is the way Mr. Pankey conducted himself from the time this happened up until his indictment. …The bucket of bizarre means a lot to me. … It builds a really, really strong circumstantial case, in my mind.
Richard Schlesinger: Well, at some point, your— your name came outta that bucket of bizarre.
Mayor John Gates: Yes — it did.
And that’s why Gates became a prosecution witness. He testified about a call he got back in 2019, about a bizarre claim Pankey made in a letter to the media.
MAYOR JOHN GATES: I was … sitting at my desk one day some time back. And had a call from a journalist in Idaho. … that told me that I’d been named as a person of interest in this case by Mr. Pankey. And I think my jaw probably hit my desk, and I said, “What?”
In another jaw-dropping move, in that same letter Pankey also named himself as a person of interest, while still insisting he’s innocent.
Anthony Viorst: Mr. Pankey loves the limelight. He just does, for whatever reason.
Richard Schlesinger: It’s a hell of a way to get the limelight. Isn’t it?
Anthony Viorst: It’s not a good way. … I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
For Pankey, it might have started getting a little hot under the limelight, if you will, when the state’s star witness, Angela Hicks, took the stand.
She is Steven Pankey’s ex-wife.
DA ROBERT MILLER: Describe what happens on December 21 at your house.
That was just one day after Jonelle disappeared. Angela Hicks says her then-husband came home and seemingly out of the blue, announced they were leaving on that trip to California — and they were leaving quickly.
ANGELA HICKS: He said, “get us ready to go. We’re leaving before daylight tomorrow morning to go to Big Bear for Christmas.”
Hicks says on their way back to Greeley, Pankey insisted she turn on the radio. She says that shocked her because Pankey had forbidden radio and television use in their house, about a year earlier.
ANGELA HICKS: “No more music, no TV, no radio, no newspapers. This is going to be a godly home.”
But Angela Hicks says that day, her ex-husband was obsessed — making her flip the dial in search of news about Jonelle’s disappearance.
DA ROBERT MILLER: How long were you driving as you flipped stations looking for news stories about Jonelle Matthews?
ANGELA HICKS: Um, I mean, several hours.
Once back in Greeley, she says Pankey drove right past their house, straight to the grocery store, where he made her buy the local papers and search for news about Jonelle.
ANGELA HICKS: He wanted me to read each article out loud to him.
Hicks said Pankey, over the years, would bring up Jonelle or react strangely when others did. And she got really concerned when she found a note in the trash.
ANGELA HICKS: And one of the things notated in his handwriting on this piece of legal paper was snow outside the Matthews house was raked.
Remember those footprints in the snow that somebody, possibly Jonelle’s abductor, tried to conceal using a garden rake? Prosecutors say only the Matthews family, investigators and presumably the killer knew about them. But apparently Pankey knew. He even mentioned them in a 2019 conversation, with investigators.
Anthony Viorst: That is arguably the one piece of evidence that arguably ties Mr. Pankey to the crime. I mean …
Richard Schlesinger: Arguably? They never released the information about the rake.
Anthony Viorst: So, here’s what I’ll say … It’s our position that it was divulged by law enforcement. All right?
Richard Schlesinger: By the police.
Anthony Viorst: Yeah, they told him. All right?
And furthermore, Viorst told the jury that Pankey wasn’t the only person who knew about those raked footprints.
ANTHONY VIORST: Norris Drake, Ladies and gentlemen, knew that the footprints were raked.
Norris Drake. Viorst claims that he is Jonelle’s killer. In the years after Jonelle disappeared, Drake was arrested on multiple unrelated misdemeanor charges.
ANTHONY VIORST: Norris Drake murdered Jonelle Matthews.
Kelly Werthmann: I mean, as a reporter, you start lookin’ around … tryin’ to do some searching of who this person is.
Kelly Werthmann and others covering the trial had never heard the name Norris Drake before, but—unlike Pankey—Drake had been questioned by police about Jonelle’s disappearance. His mother and sister lived across the street from the Matthews home, and he was at his mother’s house the night Jonelle was taken.
Kelly Werthmann: There were no signs of a struggle inside the Matthews home … he could’ve been someone that Jonelle had either seen before … She might’ve willingly opened the door, let him in; might’ve willingly gone with him if he had said … “something happened to your family, come with me.”
ANTHONY VIORST: So that’s why there was no struggle, all right? Because Norris Drake got her to leave the house.
On the night Jonelle vanished, Drake was unaccounted for for several hours. But when did he go missing? Police stopped investigating him when his mother told them Drake was still with her — in her house — at the time Jonelle is believed to have disappeared.
Kelly Werthman: But it raised some significant and, I think, important questions.
And Viorst had more, based on testimony by a former girlfriend of Drake’s.
ANTHONY VIORST: Norris Drake had an interest in young girls who had recently reached puberty, exactly what Jonelle was, exactly.
Norris Drake died in 2007, but many thought Viorst’s theory about him helped Pankey’s case. But the most talkative person in this case had yet to be heard from. Pankey himself would take the stand.
DA MICHAEL ROURKE The truest thing you’ve ever said is you’re a master manipulator, right?
STEVEN PANKEY: Maybe.
PANKEY TAKES THE STAND
When Steven Pankey swore to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, Gloria and Jim Matthews were hoping to finally get to the truth, about their daughter, Jonelle’s, murder.
Jim Matthews: Hopefully we will know the scenario of what happened that night.
But Pankey has never been a man with clear answers.
STEVEN PANKEY: In the little jail cubicle before coming up here, I was praying and I was thinking, God, maybe I shouldn’t testify … Because I’d be just telling more lies.
Now under oath, Pankey said it was time to say truthfully that he was liar … until now.
STEVEN PANKEY: So, the truth is that I made a lot of stuff up out of bitterness.
Like that story he once told law enforcement about his father-in-law.
STEVEN PANKEY: He told me that a cop had contacted him and said that he had a body he wanted to be buried.
STEVEN PANKEY: I had told so many lies.
That was one of many lies, says Pankey, meant to target people he hated, like his father-in-law, and Mayor John Gates.
STEVEN PANKEY: It was a polite way of flipping them the bird. It was pure hatred on my part.
Richard Schlesinger: Is that in any way believable to you?
Mayor John Gates: It’s not to me, ah, Richard. But keep in mind, I’m a 26-year law enforcement veteran. So, I might be a little more cynical than the average person.
STEVEN PANKEY: It was just me trying to be a big man, be in the case, OK? I had no knowledge.
Pankey made an unusual witness in his own defense.
STEVEN PANKEY: … one lie leads to another.
Pankey says it was lies that led to him being charged with murder, but not his lies; his ex-wife Angela Hicks’ lies fueled by her need for revenge.
STEVEN PANKEY: I had never imagined Angie would be as big a liar as I am.
Pankey refuted his ex-wife’s claim that their trip to California two mornings after Jonelle disappeared was sudden — insisting it had long been planned.
STEVEN PANKEY A month, three weeks, two months, I don’t know, before December.
He agreed they were listening to the radio on their way back to Greeley.
STEVEN PANKEY: That’s the first time I heard that there was a missing child.
But denied he was obsessed with the news.
Kelly Werthmann: I think it’s, it’s her word against his. So, the defense clearly has to prove, yes, he’s an admitted liar but he’s not lying now.
Pankey was on the stand for two days giving testimony that was often rambling and hard to follow, and sometimes head-scratching.
STEVEN PANKEY: I wanna back up a little bit.
ANTHONY VIORST: Mr. Pankey, I’m gonna ask you to answer my questions a little more directly if you don’t mind.
STEVEN PANKEY: I spent a couple of hours in the basement jail area with my attorney… and he was talking to me about my testimony … Mr. Viorst was saying to me — ’cause I would give certain things and he’d say, “well, that’s a good answer.” … And then I’d say other things and he’d say, “well, that’s bull—— nobody’s going to buy that.”
ANTHONY VIORST: He lives in a world of conspiracy, paranoia and low self-esteem.
In his closing argument, Viorst, who’s a lawyer, not a psychiatrist, raised serious questions about his client’s mental health.
ANTHONY VIORST: Mr. Pankey does have a mental illness.
Richard Schlesinger: Pankey’s defense lawyer told me that he thought his client might be mentally ill. If that’s the theory of the defense, did Pankey’s time on the stand help him or hurt him?
Mayor John Gates: I could see that goin’ either way.
But the state saw it going their way.
DA ROBERT MILLER: He’s not someone that has a mental health disorder, he’s a master manipulator.
On November 2, 2021, the jurors got the case. And two days later they were back.
JUDGE TIMOTHY KERNS: Has the jury reached a unanimous verdict on count number four?
Count four: making false reports to authorities.
JUDGE TIMOTHY KERNS: We the jury find the defendant Steven Dana Pankey guilty.
Mayor John Gates: I think that part might’ve fit into the no-brainer category. The other counts were — were far more complex than that, in my opinion.
On those other counts, the actual murder charges, the jury deadlocked and could not come to a unanimous verdict.
JUDGE TIMOTHY KERNS: I realize the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the other counts and that is a perfectly acceptable way for a trial to conclude.
The judge declared a mistrial. And as of now, nobody has been convicted of murdering Jonelle.
Mayor John Gates: The jury likely was conflicted on was Mr. Pankey, in fact, someone that kidnapped and murdered Jonelle Matthews? Or was he one that just surrounded himself with strange, bizarre behavior for years?
For the family of Jonelle Matthews, the news was so devastating they didn’t want to discuss it.
Kelly Werthmann: To not have that definitive answer … It’s frustrating. It’s emotional. It’s exhausting.
And they may have to do it all again. Prosecutors have announced they are ready for a new trial, because they still believe Jonelle was killed by Steven Pankey.
Richard Schlesinger: What do you think happened to your sister?
Jennifer Mogensen: I don’t know specifics. … but he took her … he shot her. And then he buried her and went on with his life. And she could not go on with hers.
The retrial of Steven Pankey is scheduled for October 4, 2022.
Produced by Judy Rybak. Claire St. Amant is the development producer. Doreen Schechter is the producer-editor. Ryan N. Smith is a development producer. Jordan Kinsey, Elizabeth Caholo and Lauren A. White are the field producers. Ken Blum and Jud Johnston are the editors. Chelsea Narvaez is the associate producer. Patti Aronofsky is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.