A former gubernatorial candidate in Idaho is standing trial this month in a 1980s cold case murder of a missing 12-year-old girl whose face famously appeared on milk cartons across the country.
Steven D. Pankey, 70, appeared in Weld County court in Colorado on Wednesday to face charges in the 1984 slaying of Jonelle Matthews, according to ABC News.
On Dec. 20, 1984, Matthews vanished from her home in Greeley, Colorado after singing Christmas carols at a nursing facility, the Denver Post reported. Her disappearance gained attention after her face was plastered on milk cartons around the country as part of a nationwide campaign to spread awareness about missing children cases. The initiative was touted by former President Ronald Raegan.
In 2019, more than 34 years after disappearance, Matthews’ bones were recovered from an oil and gas site in Weld County, according to the Greeley Tribune. She’d been fatally shot in the head.
Pankey, who was indicted on murder charges in Matthews’ death, was arrested on Oct. 28, 2020, according to online jail records. He was identified as a former neighbor of the missing child’s family and had previously attended the same church in Greeley.
Prosecutors allege Pankey abducted Matthews from her residence and later shot and killed her. The 70-year-old had a tendency to watch students while they walked home from Franklin Middle School in Greeley, according to a copy of the indictment obtained by Oxygen.com.
On Thursday, Matthews’ family members gathered in court to listen to the trial’s opening statements, as well as take the stand in the murder case. Although officials acknowledged no DNA evidence exists tying Pankey to the murder, the county’s lead prosecutor maintained the evidence presented during trial will implicate him as Matthews’ abductor and killer.
“What you will hear, over and over and over again, are statements of the defendant…and behaviors that will lead you to but one conclusion that he is the individual we’ve been looking for for 37 years,” ” Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke told the court in his opening statement.
Pankey, a former longshot political candidate who ran two failed campaigns for governor, maintained an overly active interest in the long-unsolved case, prosecutors said. They pointed to his erratic behavior, recounted by his wife, around the time of the 12-year-old’s murder. He often allegedly spoke openly and eagerly to law enforcement and journalists about the case, according to ABC News.
“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 reportedly said during his opening arguments.
A search of Pankey’s electronic devices revealed he’d searched online thousands of times for information pertaining to the Matthews case, he told the court.
“You will see that it is a norm in that man’s life to search for information regarding the Jonelle Matthews case,” Rourke added.
Pankey’s defense attorney, however, was adamant that the government had thin evidence and insisted that his client’s eccentric personality and morbid curiosity with true crime weren’t convictable offenses.
“Steve Pankey is a busybody… He gets in the middle of things,” his lawyer, Anthony Viorst, said. “And when it comes to these true crimes situations, he’s particularly interested and he gets particularly involved.”
Viorst alluded to the possibility of an alternate suspect in the case.
Pankey ran for governor of Colorado in 2014 as a Constitution Party candidate. He later ran for the Republican primary in 2018. His legal team wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by Oxygen.com on Thursday.
If convicted, Pankey faces 20 years to life in Matthews’ murder, according to KTBV. Prosecutors said the trial is expected to stretch into November.