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Former Idaho governor candidate held on $5 million bond in cold-case child murder

Steve Pankey is accused of abducting and killing 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews in Colorado in 1984.

GREELEY, Colo. — Bond has been set at $5 million for a former Idaho candidate for governor charged earlier this year in the cold-case murder of a Colorado 12-year-old, despite his attorney's argument that the suspect was only guilty of odd behavior in the years following the girl's disappearance.

Meridian resident Steve Pankey, 69, is facing two first-degree murder charges, two violent crime charges, and one second-degree kidnapping charge, all of which are felonies.

Pankey was arrested in October in connection to the death of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, who went missing from her home in Greeley, Colorado on Dec. 20, 1984. The girl's remains were unearthed in 2019 - nearly 35 years later - at a nearby oil and gas site.

RELATED: Former Idaho governor candidate Steve Pankey charged with murder in connection to 1984 Colorado cold case

Pankey lived about two miles away from Jonelle's home when she disappeared. He is accused in a grand jury indictment of abducting the girl after she returned home from a school Christmas concert, and shooting her in the head.

Pankey, who ran unsuccessfully for Idaho governor as a Constitution Party candidate in 2014 and as a Republican in the 2018 primary, was named a person of interest in the case after Jonelle's remains were found. 

Credit: KUSA
Jonelle Matthews

Assistant District Attorney Robert Miller told the judge at Pankey's Friday bond hearing that the suspect has repeatedly inserted himself into the case, sending letters to law enforcement and the courts about Jonelle's disappearance. Pankey also knew about a crucial piece of evidence - a rake used to sweep away footprints in the snow - that had not been disclosed to the public, according to the indictment.

RELATED: Steven Pankey booked into Colorado jail, to appear in court Friday on murder charges

Pankey has claimed he left Greeley to visit his parents in California in the early hours of Dec. 21, 1984, and that he did not hear of Jonelle's disappearance until he returned several days later. That alibi is contradicted by his ex-wife, according to the indictment, who told police that the trip to California happened later. 

Miller says that Pankey turned up at the Greeley Police Department in January 1985, telling detectives that he was a Baptist minister and that a member of his congregation had confided to having been involved in Jonelle Matthews' disappearance. 

"He asked the detective at the time to provide information so he could compare that to what his parishioner told him," Miller said. "He was never an ordained minister. He was just trying to get information on this case."

Pankey returned to the police department again later that month, again claiming to be a Baptist minister, and tried to point detectives towards a local pastor as a suspect, the assistant DA added. 

RELATED: Steve Pankey, person of interest in Colorado murder cold case, claims he's being framed by police

Pankey also brought up the Jonelle Matthews case unprompted in 1986 while being interviewed by the FBI about his harassment of a rape victim and her family. Shortly after speaking to the FBI, Pankey and his family moved out of Colorado, leaving their belongings behind, Miller said. 

Miller says Pankey has written about and mentioned the case often - suggesting the disappearance would never be solved without his help, and musing that police could recover the girl's body by offering him immunity. He also wrote a lengthy alibi letter for to the Weld County DA's office in 2013 containing "a number of falsehoods," according to Miller, ranging from the amount of snow on the ground the night the girl disappeared, to the number of cars on his property, to a visit to a Texaco gas station which had not yet been built in Greeley in 1984.

"I'm not sure why anyone would write my office an alibi letter unless they needed an alibi for something," Miller said.

RELATED: Defense attorney: Pankey's alibi in 1984 murder 'obviously has an ax to grind'

But Pankey's attorney, Anthony Viorst, argued that his client was an innocent man with a "true crime obsession" and some eccentric behavior that made investigators zero in on him as a suspect, despite a lack of hard evidence tying him to the murder.

"He has done some things that seem a bit strange: The strangest thing of all is that Mr. Pankey seemed to want to be charged with a crime that he didn't commit," Viorst said. "He was never on the police radar until recently, and the only reason he ever got there is because he was the one who continually contacted them."

Pankey himself has denied involvement in the cold-case murder, telling KTVB in a lengthy interview before his arrest that he had never met Jonelle Matthews or her family, and that police were trying to frame him.

Credit: Pool camera
Steve Pankey in court Dec. 4, 2020

Viorst asked the judge to set a $50,000 bond in the case, arguing that Pankey has only a minor criminal record and poses no threat to the community.

"This is about more than just Jonelle Matthews murder - I mean, they charged Mr. Pankey with that, but ultimately what they really charged Mr. Pankey with is being an irascible, prickly guy," the attorney said. "That's really his only offense here."

RELATED: 'It’s healing and closure': Jonelle Matthews' family said indictment is a step toward justice

But Miller argued that although he has not been convicted of a felony, Pankey has a history of stalking and harassing witnesses. He asked the judge for a $10 million cash bond, describing the defendant as a flight risk. Pankey has more than $1 million in a trust fund and a house worth $400,000 in Idaho, the assistant DA said - money he could use to skip town if allowed to leave jail. 

"Not only does he have the means to flee, he has been absconding for 36 years in this case," Miller said.

Pankey's attorney contended that such a bond was far too high. 

"He's almost 70 years old, your honor - he's not going anywhere," Viorst said. "I sympathize with the family of Jonelle Matthews, but $10 million is just ridiculous."

Judge Timothy Kerns ultimately set the bond at $5 million in cash, meaning Pankey could not put up his home or other property as collateral to get out of jail. Kerns also ordered that Pankey surrender his passport, be fitted with a GPS monitor, have no contact with any witnesses, and not leave Colorado if he is able to bond out. The suspect was also barred from possessing a gun, ammunition, or other weapons while the case is pending if he is released.

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

Kerns said he may modify the bond and conditions at a later date after he reviews the "voluminous" transcripts and evidence in the case. 

Pankey is due back in court Dec. 30. Colorado abolished the death penalty earlier this year; if convicted of Jonelle Matthews' murder, he will face 20 years to life in prison.

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