How Jonelle Matthews' Body Was Found Over 30 Years After Her Disappearance And Death

The Denver Post reports that on December 20, 1984, a 12-year-old girl named Jonelle Matthews went missing. Her case was so sudden and shocking that it drew national attention, even from the President of the United States. But the case went ice cold for decades — until her remains were finally discovered.

According to the Greeley Tribune, 12-year-old Jonelle performed with her school choir that December night, singing at a nearby bank. Her mother was away on a trip, and her father was attending her sister Jennifer's basketball game. After the concert, Jonelle was dropped off at her house by a friend around 8:15 p.m. Although the friend watched Matthews go inside her house, it was the last time she would be seen alive.

Greeley Tribune reports that Jim, Jonelle's father, called the police around 10 p.m. when no one had heard from her. The snow outside the windows of the house showed fresh footprints — someone had been peering inside. But aside from a garage door left open, there was no sign of a forcible entry. According to CBS News, clues were sparse because the snowy shoeprints had been erased with a rake from the Matthews' garage.

The search begins

According to the Greeley Tribune, the efforts to find Jonelle Matthews were a huge undertaking, both locally and nationally. Hundreds of volunteers spread out to try and find her, community members mailed out flyers and displayed signs in their yards to raise awareness, and fifty-nine local churches held vigils for Matthews. CBS News reports that Matthews' case was one of the first to feature a missing child on a milk carton, and thousands of posters offering a reward for information about Matthews were distributed throughout the United States (via The Denver Post).

While introducing the ​​National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, President Ronald Reagan mentioned Matthews by name. He said (via the Greeley Tribune), "Well over a million American children disappear from their homes or neighborhoods every year causing, as we can all understand, heartbreaking anguish. Parents cry out for help, many through letters to me. For example, I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado, who would have celebrated a happy 13th birthday with her family just last month. But five days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home." He then encouraged the nation to help by calling the toll-free number if they had any leads.

An unexpected discovery

In July 2019, Jonelle Matthews' bones were discovered by a work crew that had begun excavating the area (via The Denver Post). Police officers were alerted, and they investigated the scene, where they were able to positively identify the remains as belonging to Jonelle Matthews. The Weld county sheriff said that the case would be treated as a homicide, and CBS News reports that the coroner concluded that Jonelle Matthews had been killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Interestingly, Matthews' remains may not have ever been found if it weren't for the crew that happened to be digging a pipeline.

Workers at the oil and gas site discovered her remains and alerted police. The location, Weld County Road 49 and Weld 34 ½, was not being used for oil and gas purposes when she went missing in the 1980s. Instead, Seargent Joe Tymkowych told the Greeley Tribune that it used to be full of "acres and acres of scrub." He added: "When I think about that area back then, I think of a lot of open land. Some of it was farmland, but a lot of it was open." The Weld county communications director, Jennifer Finch, told the outlet that in the 1980s, the area was next to a two-lane road with no shoulders, surrounded only by a few farmhouses. The area was not a frequently traveled road, especially at night.

New clues about Jonelle

The Greeley Tribune declined to ever publish the crime scene photos out of respect for the family and the deceased, but they did describe them: a skull found in the ground with its teeth intact, still wearing braces, and alongside red and blue scraps of fabric. This matched up with Jonelle Matthews' clothing in photos of her concert that night: she had braces, and she was wearing red and blue. The construction crew was reportedly digging dirt about 8 to 10 inches at a time when they discovered the remains, although police didn't reveal how deeply the bones had been buried.

CBS News reports that Jonelle's father, Jim, was originally considered a suspect, but he was cleared after taking a lie detector test. Steve Pankey, who became the main suspect in 2020, lived about 2 miles away from the Matthews' residence. The day after Matthews went missing in 1984, Pankey and his wife and 5-year-old son left town for five days, reportedly to spend Christmas with family. But afterward, Pankey became increasingly involved with the case. His wife, Angela Hicks, testified that Pankey immediately became obsessed with the Matthews case in 1984. She said he followed it closely on the radio, television, and newspapers and even asked her to read some articles about Matthews aloud to him.

Pankey's arrest and Matthews' burial

Steve Pankey was eager to insert himself into the case, reporting to detectives that he knew someone who knew about Jonelle Matthews' disappearance but then refusing to give up the information (via CBS News). He also somehow knew that a rake had been used to cover up the snowy footprints, something only the police and Matthews family could have known about. According to The New York Times, Pankey's wife said that he acted strangely in the days after her murder — most notably, during a religious service, a minister said that Jonelle Matthews would be found safe; Pankey muttered, "False prophet." CBS News reports that he was arrested in October 2020, and he said he lied about his under oath in previous testimony. He claimed that police let the information about the rake marks in the snow slip out and that he made up false details about the crime.

Pankey was found guilty in 2021, but only of false reporting to authorities, reports 9News. A mistrial was declared for Pankey's other charges of murder and kidnapping.  Still, The New York Times spoke with Matthews' sister, Jennifer Mogensen, after the indictment, and she said that knowing her sister's cause of death gave their family some closure. She described Pankey's arrest as a "gift to our family," and in August 2019, the Matthews family finally put their daughter to rest in what her father called a "dignified burial."