Trial starts in 1984 killing of girl shown on milk cartoon

Oct 13, 2021, 12:07 PM | Updated: 12:24 pm

DENVER (AP) — A former longshot Idaho gubernatorial candidate on trial in the 1984 killing of a 12-year-old Colorado girl wasn’t even remotely considered a suspect to law enforcement until his obsession with the crime and incessant visits to talk with police about it provided clues that turned him into the suspect, prosecutors said Wednesday at the start of the man’s trial.

Steve D. Pankey, a repeat longshot candidate, was arrested last year in the death of Jonelle Matthews. The girl’s remains were found after her face appeared on milk cartons as one of the first missing children featured on them in an effort championed by former President Ronald Reagan. She had been fatally shot.

Pankey was a neighbor of the girl’s family in Greeley, Colorado, a city of nearly 108,000 residents about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Denver.

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said during his opening statement that Pankey’s voluntary statements to law enforcement and journalists over the years, his intense interest in the case and strange behavior around the time of the murder recounted by his ex-wife prove his guilt.

“It’s almost as if the defendant periodically and with increasing frequency would walk up to law enforcement, tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Here I am. Come and get me,'” Rourke said.

Pankey’s attorney, Anthony Viorst, countered that prosecutors’ circumstantial evidence, Pankey’s overbearing personality and his obsession with “true crime” mysteries is not enough to convict him of kidnaping and murder. Viorst said he planned to introduce testimony suggesting police should focus on a possible alternate suspect.

“Steve Pankey is a busybody… He gets in the middle of things,” Viorst said. “And when it comes to these true crimes situations, he’s particularly interested and he gets particularly involved.”

Jonelle was considered missing for more than 30 years until workers digging a pipeline in July 2019 discovered human remains matching her dental records in a rural area southeast of Greeley. Police then labeled her death a homicide.

Jonelle died from a single gunshot wound to her forehead, Rourke said.

Rourke shared details of Pankey’s continuous, unwarranted visits and statements to law enforcement about the Matthews case.

Viorst said that Pankey’s obsession came because he has Asperger syndrome, which causes his mind to process information differently and leads him to get “in middle of these things” to prove his own “self importance.”

Viorst gave several examples of other crimes that Pankey inserted himself in by alleging to law enforcement that he had evidence or that he was directly involved.

Prosecutors said Pankey frequently contacted law enforcement offering to share information about the case that he said he learned from a pastoral confession that was not described in more detail, but would only do so in return for immunity from prosecution.

Rourke said Pankey’s wife said he was never a pastor. Pankey also commented on a Greeley Tribune online article about the case, writing: “Without a deal, this case may never be resolved,” Rourke said.

Prosecutors said Pankey kept up to date on the case throughout the years even as he moved his family to several states before settling in Idaho where he ran as a Constitution Party candidate for Idaho governor in 2014 and in the Republican primary in 2018, the year that authorities said he became a person of interest in the girl’s death.

Law enforcement’s seizure of Pankey’s electronic devices led to the discovery of thousands of searches for information about the case long before he was considered a person of interest, Rourke said.

“You will see that it is a norm in that man’s life to search for information regarding the Jonelle Matthews case,” Rourke said.

Jonelle disappeared on Dec. 20, 1984, after she was dropped off at home by a friend and the friend’s father. She was last seen at 8 p.m., entering the ranch-style home where she lived with her father, mother and sister. But when her father returned from her older sister’s basketball game an hour later, Jonelle was gone.

Viorst, the defense lawyer, asked the jury to use common sense in piecing together the timeline of events and the lack of motive that Pankey would have had since Pankey did not know the Matthews family. Viorst also made it a point to express that Pankey had no sexual interest in young girls.

Pankey was contacted by the Idaho Statesman to tell his side of the story after he became a person of interest. He told the newspaper that he was home with his then-wife the night Jonelle went missing, their car packed for an early-morning trip the next day to visit family in California. They took the trip and returned home six days later in 1984, Pankey said, and he then heard the news about a missing child on the radio.

Prosecutors said the ex-wife recalled that the trip was unexpected and that on the way home, Pankey searched radio channels for news accounts of Jonelle’s disappearance and stopped at a local grocery store to get newspapers with articles about the girl from preceding days.

___

Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori, center, is applauded by models after the presentation ...
Associated Press

Hanae Mori, designer for films, empress, dies, reports say

TOKYO (AP) — Designer Hanae Mori, known for her elegant signature butterfly motifs, numerous cinema fashions and the wedding gown of a future Japanese empress, has died, local media reported Thursday. She was 96. Mori symbolized the rise of Japan as a modern, fashionable nation and the rise of the working woman. The media reports […]
19 hours ago
Former Vice President Mike Pence gestures during the "Politics and Eggs" breakfast gathering, Wedne...
Associated Press

Pence tells GOP to stop lashing out at FBI over Trump search

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday implored fellow Republicans to stop lashing out at the FBI over the search of Donald Trump’s Florida home and denounced calls by some of the former president’s allies to defund the FBI, saying that was “just as wrong” as a push by Democratic activists […]
19 hours ago
Associated Press

Police: Man who broke into Wisconsin home wanted a bath

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. (AP) — A Minnesota man who allegedly broke into an occupied Wisconsin home last week and locked himself in a bathroom never had a chance to come clean. He was getting ready to take a bath when authorities arrived. Authorities say the 29-year-old St. Paul, Minnesota man was filling up the tub […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Allen Weisselberg, right, stands behind then President-elect Donald Trump during a news conf...
Associated Press

Trump Org. CFO to plead guilty, testify against company

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s chief financial officer is expected to plead guilty to tax violations Thursday in a deal that would require him to testify about illicit business practices at the former president’s company, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. Allen Weisselberg is charged with taking more than $1.7 […]
19 hours ago
FILE - This Aug. 8, 2022, still image taken from officer video provided by the Albuquerque Police D...
Associated Press

Suspect in New Mexico Muslim killings detained pending trial

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An Afghan refugee charged in the shooting deaths of two Muslim men and suspected in the killing of two others was ordered held without bond pending trial as prosecutors argued Wednesday that he was a danger to his own family and the greater community. Prosecutors during a detention hearing pointed to […]
19 hours ago
FILE - Anne Heche arrives at the premiere of "The Tender Bar" at the TCL Chinese Theatre, on Dec. 1...
Associated Press

Anne Heche’s death ruled accidental after fiery car crash

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Actor Anne Heche died from inhalation injury and burns after her fiery car crash and the death was ruled an accident, according to coroner’s results released Wednesday. Heche, 53, also had a fractured sternum caused by “blunt trauma,” according to information on the website of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner. […]
19 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Trial starts in 1984 killing of girl shown on milk cartoon