DENVER — A Weld County jury on Monday found Steven Pankey guilty on three counts, including felony murder, in the 1984 kidnapping and killing of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.
The jury found Pankey guilty of felony murder (class 1 felony), second-degree kidnapping with a deadly weapon (class 3 felony) and false reporting to authorities (class 3 misdemeanor). The jury found Pankey not guilty of first-degree murder after deliberation.
Judge Timothy G. Kerns sentenced Pankey Monday afternoon to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years based on statute that was in place at the time of the crime.
Matthews’ parents, Jim and Gloria Matthews, and her sister, Jennifer Morgensen, all spoke at sentencing — saying he took their daughter and sister from them, leaving them without countless memories and joys in life.
Jim and Gloria Matthews both told Pankey that while he faced his earthly sentence Monday, he will have another to face after he dies.
“There’s still hope for you. It’s not too late to confess your sins, which is the first step toward your forgiveness. The second is to repent or turn away from your evil ways. If you do this, God is faithful and has the ability to truly forgive you,” Jim Matthews told him and the court. “The gates of heaven can still be open; you can escape from eternal Hell or damnation. It’s up to you and it’s not too late, Steve Pankey. God is waiting.”
Gloria Matthews said she could not forgive Pankey in the moment for ending her daughter’s life.
“I hope in the days ahead you’ll hear and obey what God tells you and that his word will penetrate your heart,” she said.
Morgensen thanked Greeley police and the district attorney’s office for their help in putting the case together to solve the mystery of her sister’s disappearance, and the jurors and court for bringing Pankey to justice despite the life she missed with her sister.
“Reaching a guilty verdict today marks the end of our earthly justice for Jonelle, but it’s only the beginning of your journey,” she said. “There is one more still to come, but only you and your god will be present for that.”
Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said he’d spoken with others who testified in the case, including Pankey’s ex-wife, and both said they felt safe now that Pankey would be headed to prison.
“This court has but one sentence to impose, which is truly the proper sentence for someone who’s walked this earth 38 years knowing what he’d done,” Rourke said. “Today, justice truly prevails for Jonelle.”
Pankey’s defense counsel said little to defend the verdict before the judge handed down the sentence, reiterating that he was a father and religious man, but also saying: “We understand the court has to do what it has to do.”
Pankey was given the opportunity to speak in his own defense at the sentencing hearing as well. He spoke three brief sentences.
“I am a Christian. I will be in heaven. I am innocent and this is not justice for Jonelle,” he said.
But Judge Kern addressed the family and their “unspeakable” loss before handing down the life sentence.
“On behalf of the state of Colorado, you have our condolences and our hope — I don’t know if closure is the right word — but some sense of finality for your daughter and sister.”
The court hinted Pankey would appeal the conviction, and the two sides agreed to submit restitution filings within the next 30 days.
This month’s trial was the second for Pankey in the case involving Matthews’ murder and cold case. The first ended last year in a mistrial when the jury could not reach a consensus on most counts, though it found him guilty of false reporting, a class 3 misdemeanor.
Matthews was last seen alive on Dec. 20, 1984, after a choir performance. In 2019, construction crews in Weld County found bones at a site which were identified as those of Matthews. Pankey lived about two miles away from her at the time, and according to his indictment, he took her from her home that night and fatally shot her.
The Greeley Police Department confirmed in September 2019 Pankey was a person of interest. A Weld County grand jury indicted Pankey in October 2020.
During the original trial, witnesses testified that Pankey appeared obsessed with the case. Evidence presented included statements Pankey made in church, internet searches he made about Williams and statements he made to law enforcement.
And though Pankey’s attorneys repeatedly noted during both trials there was no physical evidence linking Pankey to the case, the Weld County jury was convinced and delivered a unanimous verdict.
Pankey ran as a Republican in the 2018 gubernatorial primary and as a Constitution Party candidate in 2014.