WELD COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — A jury found the man accused in the 1984 death of a 12-year-old girl who went missing after a choir recital guilty of her kidnapping and murder.
Steve Pankey was found guilty of false reporting, second-degree kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews. The current trial has been underway since Oct. 4.
The court reconvened in the afternoon and the judge sentenced Pankey to life in prison with the possibility for parole after 20 years served.
On Friday, the jury entered deliberations and went home for the night without making a decision.
What happened on Dec. 20, 1984?
Matthews disappeared from her Greeley home on Dec. 20, 1984. She was last seen being dropped off at the home by a friend and a friend’s father after she performed at a Christmas holiday concert with a middle school honor choir. When Matthews’ parents got home at 10 p.m., the family told police they found the front door open, her shoes by a chair and her stockings thrown over the couch.
Case reopened after remains found in 2019
Her remains were found in July 2019 at a construction site several miles from the home. Almost a year later, Pankey was arrested in connection to her murder.
Pankey was not a family friend of the Matthews, but did attend the same church and was in a similar social circle.
Investigators said he injected himself into the case and knows too many intimate details about the crime, which were never made public.
This is Pankey’s second trial after a judge declared a partial mistrial in November 2021. The jury could not reach an agreement on if Pankey was guilty of murder and kidnapping in the case, although it did find him guilty of lying to authorities.
Matthews’ family speaks after sentencing
Matthews’ parents spoke after the judge issued the life sentence to Pankey.
“What did I feel after the verdict? Relief. Closure, finality for our family, and praising God for his help in this as well,” Jonelle’s father, Jim Matthews, said.
“I cannot forgive him (for) how he killed Jonelle. I have a problem because so many Christians have said I need to forgive. But I feel God is the only one who can forgive the evil and I feel this is evil,” Jonelle’s mother, Gloria Matthews, said.
Pankey spoke out in court saying he was a Christian and innocent.
“The verdict they reached was incredibly thoughtful and proper verdict to be very honest with you,” Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said.
Neighbors recall the 1984 case
Greeley resident Steve Moore was in the city in 1984 when Matthews went missing. The parent lives near the street where she once lived.
“It hits home, when you have little kids like that,” Moore told FOX31, as trick-or-treaters traveled through the neighborhood on the same day as Pankey’s guilty verdict.
“It was such a big mystery,” he said. “Frustrating for the community.”
The girl’s disappearance made an impact and was not long forgotten by her neighbors. Moore said he knows people who knew the Matthews family.
“And they just said what a sweet girl she was,” Moore said.
“She just looked so sweet, and how somebody could do something like that, is just incredible,” Moore said. “It just makes you mad.”
FOX31’s Vicente Arenas and Greg Nieto contributed to this report.