GREELEY, Colo. (KDVR) — Jonelle Matthews was kidnapped and killed in Greeley in 1984. Tuesday marks 38 years since she first went missing.

A jury convicted Steve Pankey earlier this year, finding him guilty of the 12-year-old girl’s kidnapping and murder. FOX31 sat down with the lead investigator to get insight into how police solved the cold case.

More than 3 decades leads to Steve Pankey

When Greeley Police Detective Mike Prill was first asked to look into the Matthews case, he had to bring decades of investigative work into the 21st century.

“There’s really no electronic databases that existed back then,” Prill said. “A 1984 case begins with handwritten police reports.”

It took him a year to compile all the reports — 28,636 pages of discovery — and to build new leads to pursue with his partner.

“He reached out to someone who appeared in two paragraphs within those original 298 police reports and that was Steve Pankey,” Prill said.

Prill told the Problem Solvers that Pankey flew under the radar of investigators for decades. They initially reached out to see if he had information on a person of interest in the case.

But when they reached out, “Pankey oddly said, ‘I want an attorney, I need a deal, I’m not talking to you without my attorney,'” Prill recalled. “I looked at him as a witness at that point. Let’s go chat with him. What does he know?”

Around the same time, an oil crew discovered Matthews’ remains in 2019.

“Only by luck or divine intervention was Jonelle even found,” Prill said.

What was Steve Pankey’s motive?

After the discovery, Prill and his partner drove to interview Pankey in Idaho. He continued to ask for a deal.

“What I’m digesting after our conversation and after we left is he’s asking for immunity for the only crime he could be charged with, and that’s murder,” Prill said.

Prill found clues that Pankey continued to insert himself into the girl’s disappearance, whether it was a letter he wrote to the district attorney or statements he made in Idaho.

“He hoped to guide the investigation towards the people he hoped to frame,” Prill said.

After interviewing Pankey’s ex-wife, investigators felt they had enough evidence. They presented their case to a grand jury, bringing Pankey to trial for Matthews’ murder.

Here is an exchange between Pankey and the district attorney during the trial:

  • Weld County District Attorney Michael J. Rourke: “You’re asking for immunity, demanding it, for murder and kidnapping before saying anything about Jonelle Matthews. Repeatedly, right?”
  • Pankey: “You don’t know what’s in my head.”
  • Rourke: “I’m trying to get there, but you’re right, I don’t.”
  • Pankey: (laughs)

“I think in a sense he was proud of what he did, and he had no qualms thumbing his nose and taunting law enforcement,” Prill said.

When it comes to a motive, Prill said Pankey hated anyone who crossed him and held a vendetta against the local church that excommunicated him — the same church Matthews attended for choir practice.

Prill said Pankey also held racist ideologies in his writings.

“I think he kidnapped and murdered Jonelle because she was Latino going to this church that, when he attended it, they wouldn’t accept,” Prill said. “He did it in a way to frame the church in general.”

Matthews went missing after she performed at a Christmas holiday concert with a middle school honor choir. Earlier this year, Pankey was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.