GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Jurors started deliberating Tuesday in the trial of a former longshot Idaho gubernatorial candidate charged with murder in the death of a 12-year-old Colorado girl who disappeared in 1984.
Suspect Steve Pankey was a neighbor of Jonelle Matthews and her family when she vanished after being dropped off at her empty home by a family friend after performing at a Christmas concert in Greeley, Colorado, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Denver.
Pankey emerged as person of interest in the case three decades later — shortly before Jonelle’s body was found in 2019 — after claiming to have information about what happened to her, allegedly knowing details that had not been made public and asking for immunity from prosecution.
Pankey is a paranoid true crime junkie who took an interest in the case, as well as other slayings, and testified to lying to investigators about having information about it, his lawyer, Anthony Viorst, told jurors during closing arguments.
Despite being dishonest and behaving like a “jerk” to his ex-wife, Angela Hicks, and others, Pankey did not kill the girl, Viorst said.
“Jerk? Guilty as charged. Murderer? Not guilty,” said Viorst, who said Pankey was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which Viorst previously said causes Pankey to process information differently and get involved in matters, especially true crime cases, to prove his “self importance.”
Lacking physical evidence, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from Hicks, who said that Pankey unexpectedly announced the night that Jonelle disappeared that they were leaving to visit family in California early the next day.
Pankey on the return trip home insisted on listening to news reports about the girl’s disappearance on the radio and instead of heading directly home after the long trip drove past it to buy newspapers with stories about the case, Assistant District Attorney Robb Miller told jurors during closing arguments.
“Don’t let this self-proclaimed master manipulator manipulate you,” said Miller.
Viorst discounted Hicks’ testimony, saying she only started talking with authorities about Pankey’s suspected involvement in 1999, when she sought a divorce. Viorst also tried to generate reasonable doubt about his client’s involvement by raising the possibility of an alternate suspect.
Pankey took the stand last week, delivering sometimes rambling testimony. He said he pretended to know information about the case out of bitterness for police and because of his former church and former employer, both of which he wanted investigated.
He spoke about being bullied for being bisexual and his hatred of racist police officers from his time working on an ambulance in California. In one example, he spoke about withholding treatment from an injured sheriff’s deputy who was crying in pain because of his view of police.
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 unsuccessfully as a Constitution Party candidate for Idaho governor in 2014 and in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2018, the year that authorities said he was named as a person of interest in the girl’s death.
Jonelle was considered missing until workers digging a pipeline in a rural area near Greeley in July 2019 discovered human remains matching her dental records.
Her death was then ruled a homicide. She died from a single gunshot wound to the head, prosecutors said.