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Evidence of guilt or obsessive interest: Attorneys lay out competing narratives in Jonelle Matthews case

Jonelle Matthews' mother, father, and sister were the first to testify at the trial for her suspected killer, Steve Pankey.

WELD COUNTY, Colo. — The father, mother, and sister of Jonelle Matthews testified Wednesday afternoon about the day in December 1984 that they last saw her alive.

They were the first witnesses in the trial for Steve Pankey, who was indicted in connection with Jonelle's death in 2019, a few months after her remains were found in Weld County.

Each of Jonelle’s family members described a family meeting over apple cider before they parted ways on the evening of Dec. 20, 1984. They discussed mother Gloria Mathews’ plan to leave for California that night to surprise her parents with a visit, which meant she wouldn’t be home for Christmas.

Gloria Matthews testified that Jonelle was upset about missing their Christmas traditions, but they agreed they would push those back to Dec. 26. 

She testified that she was picked up by a coworker for a ride to the airport around 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 20. Her older daughter left a short time later, around 6 p.m., to go to her high school basketball game.

Jonelle stayed back with her father Jim Matthews, who drove her to her school, where he watched her board a bus that would take her to her choir concert that night. He then headed over to watch his older daughter’s basketball game.

Later that night, a neighbor named Ross Russell dropped Jonelle off at the family’s Greeley home. When her dad came home about an hour later, Jonelle's shoes had been left behind, the front door was open and the TV was on. A jewelry box was open, but nothing was missing from the home, according to the family.

Jim Matthews said that he walked inside around 9:30 p.m. and called hello to Jonelle, but did not get an answer. He didn’t think much of it initially. He said he assumed she was upstairs in her room, went to wrap a Christmas present, and then came upstairs and called for Jonelle again.

He got no response, but noticed her shoes and pantyhose near a chair in the main room, and found a note in the kitchen written by Jonelle about a phone call from a teacher who was sick and needed a sub for the next day. Not long after that, his older daughter Jennifer Mogensen (her married name) came home, and he immediately asked her if she knew where Jonelle was.

“To not have a note or anything was out of the ordinary,” Mogensen testified.

After calling a couple of her friends and getting no leads on where Jonelle was, police were called. 

Jonelle’s mother testified that she called her husband when she landed in California, but had arrived later than expected due to cold weather delays.

“He didn’t even say hi or how are,” Gloria Matthews testified. “He said 'I hate to tell you this. We can’t find Jonelle.' Right away, I had this feeling in my stomach that things weren’t right. … Jonelle would have left a note or something.”

She said she cried the rest of the night, but still managed to attend a brunch with her parents the next morning before taking a flight home. She said it “didn’t feel good” to be in their home at first, and noted that she still set out a place at the table for Jonelle on Christmas Eve.

Ross, the neighbor who dropped Jonelle off at her home the night she was last seen, was the last witness of the day Wednesday. He testified that Jonelle and his daughter Deanna attended the choir concert together, and Jonelle asked for a ride home.

“My daughter came over to the truck with Jonelle. She asked for a ride home. I said you bet. No problem,” he said. “It was nothing new or different.”

He said they drove straight to Jonelle’s house, and when he pulled up, he noticed the garage was halfway open. Ross said that Jonelle went inside and flicked the outside light a couple of times, which is was her way to let them know she was safely inside. After that, he said, they drove home. He said he was not aware Jonelle was missing until he got a call from Jim Matthews later that night.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors said in their opening statements that Steve Pankey as much as admitted to his involvement in the disappearance of Matthews. His defense attorneys countered he had an “obsessive interest” but was never involved in the crime.

There is no DNA evidence linking Pankey to the murder of Jonelle in Greeley. Prosecutors focused on the many written and verbal statements made by the defendant himself over the years, and his odd behaviors.

“You will hear statements--accounts--that show he is the person we’ve been looking for for 37 years,” Weld County Prosecutor Michael Rourke said.

Over the years, investigators released additional videos and photos of her, hoping they would bring new leads, but Jonelle remained missing until the summer of 2019, when a crew excavating at an oil and gas well in Weld County discovered her remains. Greeley Police said they recovered Jonelle’s skull and some of the clothes she was wearing the night she disappeared.

RELATED: Jonelle Matthews' family asks for public's help to pay for costs to attend murder trial

In October 2020, a Weld County grand jury indicted Pankey, a former Idaho gubernatorial candidate, on charges of first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping with a weapon, as well as two sentence-enhancing crimes of violence counts.

During most of his roughly 45-minute opening statement on Wednesday, Rourke focused on Pankey’s words and actions in the days after Jonelle vanished all the way through the time after he was arrested.

Watch the opening statements:

Rourke detailed some of the behaviors that Pankey’s ex-wife will testify about later during the trial. They include:

  • An unannounced trip to California right after Jonelle went missing
  • Making his wife search the radio for news about Jonelle on the way home from that trip
  • Having his wife “beg” for old copies of the Greeley Tribune from when they were out of town, and then making her read articles about Jonelle
  • He began digging in the front yard when they got home from the California trip
  • Days later, his wife saw a car burning on the back of their property

Pankey later tried to salvage a car that had a “phony” fire, according to Rourke. He said the person at the salvage yard noted the fire appeared to have originated inside the vehicle.

RELATED: Jonelle Matthews killed by bullet to the head, coroner says

Pankey’s son Mark was murdered in 2008 and, according to Rourke, his wife will testify that she heard Pankey say, “I hope God didn’t let this happen because of Jonelle Matthews,” as he stood near the urn containing their son’s ashes.

Credit: Weld County Sheriff's Office
Steven Pankey

During their opening statements, defense attorney Anthony Viorst countered by saying Pankey’s ex had these memories “all the sudden” and that she never suspected that Pankey had anything to do with Jonelle’s case until 1999.

“For 15 years, she never had in the back of her mind, ‘Gee, I wonder if Steve did that,” Viorst said.

He also said the statements Pankey made were only about the location of Jonelle's body and not about the crime itself, and that he claimed to have that knowledge from conversations with others.

Some of the statements made by Pankey over the years were in writings and court filings. Others were obtained from his home, when a search warrant was executed, Rourk said. He said it was not an exaggeration that Pankey had done “thousands” of computer searches for information about Jonelle since 2016.

“He has never hidden his interest in the Jonelle Matthews case,” Viorst said. “He loves these true crimes cases. People really like this stuff. It’s a legitimate sort of hobby, if you will.”

RELATED: Former Idaho gubernatorial candidate indicted in 1984 Greeley murder

His obsession with true crime went so far, Viorst said, that Pankey confessed involvement in another crime for which another person is serving time.

“He’s a true crime junkie. Gets himself in the middle of murder cases, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually involved in them,” Viorst said.

In fact, Viorst argued during his openings that Pankey has no motive to commit the crime, and said the evidence actually points to the son of the woman who lived across the street from the Matthews family in 1984.

Viorst said Norris Drake was at his mother’s home when Jonelle went missing and left around the same time Jonelle got home, or shortly after. He said Drake is the “real killer.”

“You will hear evidence, ladies and gentleman, that Norris Drake had an interest in young girls who had recently reached puberty--which is exactly what Jonelle was. Exactly,” Viorst said.

He argued that Drake could have put Jonelle at ease by using his status as a neighbor's son and got her to go along with him willingly. That is why, he argued, there was no sign of a struggle at her home. Viorst also said Drake did not get home until between 2 and 4 a.m. on Dec. 21, which would have given him time to commit the crime, which is something Pankey didn’t have.

On the night Jonelle disappeared, Pankey told investigators, he was home with his then 5-year-old son and now ex-wife. At one point Pankey described that as a “good alibi” but not a “great one,” according to Rourke. 

He told investigators he was concerned about the snow because they were leaving on a trip the next day. But Rourke noted that when they checked what the weather was like, there was only about an inch of snow and no cause for concern about driving conditions. Rourke also said Pankey’s ex will testify about how that trip was “unannounced."

According to the indictment, Pankey knew of and discussed a crucial piece of evidence from the Matthews family home – specifically, that a rake was used to “obliterate shoe impressions in the snow.” This evidence was withheld from the public by law enforcement.

However, on Wednesday, Viorst said that Drake also knew about that aspect of the scene.

The indictment says Pankey took Jonelle from her home between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 20, 1984. At some point during the kidnapping, the indictment says, Pankey shot Mathews “intentionally and after deliberation.”

Pankey would watch school children walk home from Franklin Middle School where Jonelle attended, according to the indictment.

Pankey has inserted himself in the investigation several times over the years, the indictment says, including sending an alibi and attempting to delete evidence from electronic devices.

Rourke said on Wednesday that Pankey was not even on the radar of investigators initially, but called a detective and claimed to be an ordained minister who had information about Jonelle’s case.

Rourke said Pankey told the detective he had contact with someone who had information about the case, but refused to tell the detective unless that detective agreed to share information with him first. Rourke said when the detective refused, Pankey ended the call.

His defense attorneys admitted that while Pankey may have exhibited some odd behavior, there was no evidence he committed this crime. Instead, they argued that Pankey had tried to implicate himself for a crime he didn't commit over the years.

“He wants to be an important person and that’s why he’s always writing to the DA’s office or the newspaper or the podcasts, whoever will listen to him,” Viorst said. “He wants a public platform that will make him sound important for something that he’s never really had any knowledge of.”

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