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Twin Falls man says police framed him in 36-year-old Colorado murder case, he'll testify before a grand jury
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Twin Falls man says police framed him in 36-year-old Colorado murder case, he'll testify before a grand jury

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TWIN FALLS — A former Idaho gubernatorial candidate says he’ll go before a Colorado grand jury Friday in a nearly 36-year-old homicide case.

Steve Pankey, who unsuccessfully ran for Idaho governor twice and more recently for Twin Falls County sheriff, told the Times-News he is scheduled to testify in the unsolved murder of Jonelle Matthews, a 12-year-old Greeley, Colorado, girl who disappeared just days before Christmas in 1984.

Steve Pankey

Pankey political headshot

Pankey, a longtime “person of interest” in the case, says he’s been framed by police because of his sexuality.

Workers found Jonelle’s remains in July 2019 — nearly 35 years after her death — while excavating in a Weld County field east of La Salle, Colorado. The discovery officially turned the cold case missing-person investigation into a homicide case.

Greeley law enforcement remains mum about the ongoing investigation and secret grand jury testimony and declined to confirm whether Pankey would testify.

“As stated in a press release sent out Aug. 18, the grand jury did accept the investigation into the death of Matthews,” Weld County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Krista Henery said in an email to the Times-News. “However, this is an active investigation and because the rules surrounding grand jury secrecy, no further comment or information regarding the proceedings can be released at this time.”

Henery said Thursday that Weld County grand juries are operating in person, with social distancing and precautions. No other information about Pankey’s grand jury testimony is available.

Two months after Jonelle’s remains were discovered, investigators from Colorado enlisted the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office in serving Pankey a warrant to search his condo in Twin Falls, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lori Stewart told the Times-News.

Pankey says he is eager to tell his story so his name can be cleared. He also voluntarily sent his DNA to police, which, he told the Times-News, should disqualify him as a suspect.

At the time of Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey lived a few miles from the Matthews home in Greeley on a 1-acre lot with his then-wife and 5-year-old son. The two families also attended the same church but at different times.

Pankey says those are the only connections he had to Jonelle and her family.

Tort claim

Pankey plans to file a $3 million civil suit against the state of Idaho for failure to protect his constitutional rights, according to a tort claim sent July 9 to Gov. Brad Little and others. The claim against the state refers to privileged information contained in a 23-year-old legal case.

In 1997, Pankey hired Twin Falls attorney Greg Fuller to represent him regarding a “Blaine County Police investigation into Jonelle Matthews’ disappearance, my alleged involvement, including privileged information regarding my knowledge of the Jonelle Matthews case,” he claims.

In 1998, Fuller hired attorney Calvin Campbell — now a magistrate judge in Twin Falls County — to assist in Pankey’s case.

“Campbell at that time stated I was guilty regarding Matthews” in violation of Idaho State Code, Pankey said in his tort claim. Twenty years later, Campbell signed the warrant to search Pankey’s home in Twin Falls.

Because of Campbell’s prior knowledge of the 1984 murder, Pankey claims Campbell should have recused himself from signing the search warrant and he filed a complaint against Campbell with the Idaho Judicial Council.

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On June 1, David Cantrill, executive director of the Judicial Council, sent Pankey a notice saying the council had reviewed the case but found no evidence of judicial misconduct on the part of the judge.

Pankey filed the tort claim against the state of Idaho for $3 million, claiming he has suffered emotional distress and loss of reputation from the state’s “continuing failure to protect Pankey’s United States Constitutional protections, and Idaho Code protections, with intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Few clues

It’s not clear when Pankey became an official person of interest; Greeley police have revealed little about the investigation.

The Greeley Police Department has declined requests for information from the Times-News.

Few clues were left in Jonelle’s disappearance, but Pankey claims an unknown police officer buried the girl’s body and set up Pankey to take the blame.

Pankey, who studied criminal justice at a community college, says he wants the Greeley Police Department pulled from the case. He’s asked Denver attorney Steve Zansberg to represent him pro bono to unseal an affidavit that resulted in the Sept. 3, 2019, search warrant.

Pankey has consistently told the same story, documented in hours and hours of interviews and podcasts with curious reporters who have covered the case.

On Dec. 20, 1984, the night Jonelle disappeared, Pankey says he and his family were preparing to drive to his parent’s home in Big Bear Lake, California. In numerous interviews, Pankey claims an “unmarked sheriff’s car and a pickup” pulled into his driveway that night, flashing lights at his and his neighbor’s homes before leaving.

The Pankey family left early the next morning and returned five days later. As he reentered Colorado, Pankey heard on a radio news broadcast that a Greeley girl was missing. He said that was the first knowledge he had of Jonelle and her family.

Soon after returning, Pankey claims, he was told police would try to make him look bad in the case.

Pankey said he asked his attorney what to do with the information; the attorney, Pankey said, told him he might be charged with obstruction of justice if he didn’t share the information with investigators.

Pankey said he distrusted the Greeley Police Department, so he told his story to an FBI agent in Fort Collins in January 1985, but his story was ignored.

He checked in with police intermittently over the years to stay informed of the case, he said.

Pankey says he’s been victimized in the investigation, and in his eagerness to deny responsibility in Jonelle’s disappearance and death, has revealed intimate details of his life. He calls himself “a celibate homosexual” who was attacked and harassed because of his sexuality.

“I was kicked out of the Army under honorable conditions for homosexuality,” he wrote to the Times-News in August. “... I repented, left the homosexual life in 1976.”

In 1989, Pankey and his family moved to Ketchum and later to Shoshone, where he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said in one of the numerous interviews he’s done to proclaim his innocence. When a bishop asked him if he had anything to confess, Pankey said he told the bishop he was still bothered by a “weird conversation” he’d had about a missing girl in Colorado.

Church leaders convinced Pankey to talk to a Sun Valley police lieutenant, who later reached out to Greeley police, which renewed interest in the cold case, he said.

Suspicions continue to hang over Pankey’s head. He still maintains a primary residence in Twin Falls but has purchased another home in Idaho, he says, to avoid harassment like he has received in Twin Falls.

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