GREELEY, Colo. — A former gubernatorial candidate in Idaho was convicted Monday of kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old Colorado girl who went missing nearly 40 years ago.
Jurors found Steve Pankey, 71, guilty of murder, second-degree kidnapping and misrepresentation in the 1984 disappearance and death of Jonelle Matthews, District Attorney Michael Rourke’s office said. A judge later sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole, the Greeley Tribune reported.
This was Pankey’s second trial in the case. Jurors were unable to rule on the kidnapping and murder charges last year and prosecutors decided to put him on trial again.
Pankey was a neighbor of Jonelle and her family when she went missing after being dropped off at her empty house by a family friend after performing at a Christmas concert in Greeley, Colorado, a town located in about 80 km north of Denver. He emerged as a person of interest in the case three decades later – shortly before Jonelle’s body was discovered in 2019 – after claiming to have information about what had happened to her and asking for immunity from lawsuits.
Lawyers for Pankey said his behavior may appear unusual, but argued that police failed to obtain hard evidence against him and did not clear another suspect who died in 2007, the Tribune reported.
Prosecutors said Pankey kept up to date with the case over the years, even though he moved his family around several states before settling in Idaho where he unsuccessfully ran in as the Constitution Party’s candidate for governor of Idaho in 2014 and the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2018, the year authorities said he was named as a person of interest in the death of the girl.
Jonelle’s case caught the attention of then-President Ronald Reagan as his administration launched a nationwide effort to find missing children. Her photo was printed on milk cartons across the United States as part of a National Child Safety Council project.
She was considered missing until workers digging a pipeline in a rural area near Greeley in July 2019 discovered human remains matching her dental records.
His death was later ruled a homicide. She died from a single bullet to the head, prosecutors said.