The 1984 cold case of the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews was finally solved after three decades. Tonight’s episode of Dateline explores how investigators finally cracked the case.
Detective Mike Prill had to scour 28,636 pages of paper reports to unearth the case. One man, Steve Pankey, appeared only twice in 298 police reports, but when he was contacted by police he immediately asked for an attorney.
Jonelle Matthews disappeared a few days before Christmas in 1984. She had just performed with her choir in a holiday concert.
Her remains weren’t found until 2019. She was found by an oil crew in a field southeast of her hometown Greeley, Colorado.
Prosecutors argued that Steve kidnapped Jonelle from her home on December 20, 1984, and then murdered her.
Evidence and motive
There is no physical evidence tying Steve Pankey’s to Jonelle’s death. Instead, his unusual behavior about the murder in the decades that followed led investigators to be suspicious.
He would, unprovoked, contact police about the murder giving them details like saying that a rake had been used to cover his footprints in the snow.
He also said that he knew where Jonelle went to school because he would often watch the children going to and from school.
Steve’s ex-wife Angela Hicks testified against him at the trial, relating how obsessed he was with the case. She said he raised her suspicious because right after the murder he whispered under his breath “False prophet” after a preacher predicted that Jonelle would be okay.
Detective Prill thinks Steve Pankey’s motive for killing Jonelle was because she was a Latino attending his church. Pankey thinks that he then tried to frame other church members for her murder because of their racist viewpoints.
In October 2022 Pankey was found guilty of kidnapping and murder at the end of his second trial. The first trial ended in mistrial.
He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility for parole.