On December 20, 1984, twelve-year-old Jonelle was dropped off by friends at her family's residence located in the 300 block of 43rd Avenue court in Greeley, Colorado where she had returned from a Christmas choral program at a nursing home where she had sung with her middle school choir. She was supposed to wait for the rest of the family to arrive home.
Jonelle's 16-year-old sister and her father, Jim were at a basketball game and her mother, Gloria was out of state visiting relatives. Jonelle was last heard from at 8:30 p.m. when she took a phone message from an acquaintance of her father.
When Jim came home at approximately 9:30 p.m., he discovered his daughter missing. Jonelle's stockings, shoes, shawl and a portable heater were on the floor and the television & lights were turned on. It is believed that Jonelle was interrupted while watching TV.
The garage door was discovered open and investigators found footprints inside the garage and around the back of the family's home, but there were no indications of a scuffle in the snow of the yard. Authorities suspect that an unknown intruder or intruders broke into the house and abducted Jonelle that evening. She has never been seen again.
At the time of her disappearance, Jonelle attended Franklin Middle School and attended Sunny View Church of the Nazarene.
In 1997, Jonelle's biological mother, Terri Vierra-Martinez, located Jonelle's adoptive parents where she learned about Jonelle's disappearance at that time. She also discovered that law enforcement had kept Terri under surveillance for six weeks after Jonelle went missing.
Authorities were not permitted to give Terri any information concerning her daughter's case at the time due to adoption privacy laws. Terri is not considered a suspect in Jonelle's disappearance and she has become friends with Jonelle's adoptive parents.
Jim and Gloria believed that Jonelle was deceased and held a memorial service for her, ten years after her disappearance. They now live in Costa Rica.
On July 23, 2019, a worker crew excavating at an oil and gas well in Weld County discovered remains. Based on DNA evidence, the Weld County Coroner's Office positively identified the remains as Jonelle, 34 years after her disappearance. The following month, the Matthews family held a "closure celebration memorial service. More than 100 people attended to tell their stories of Jonelle, share memories, and say one final goodbye.
On September 13, 2019, Greeley Police Department announced a "person of interest" of Jonelle Matthew's abduction and murder. The person of interest is named, Steve Pankey, who ran for governor in Idaho in 2014 and 2018, and for lieutenant governor in 2010. His home in Colorado was searched under a warrant that stated investigators had probable cause to believe that Pankey abducted and murdered the girl that night.
Pankey and his former wife lived only 2 miles away from the Matthews home where Jonelle was last seen. Greeley Police Commander Roy Smith stated that Pankey “had made repeated efforts to speak with detectives” about the Matthews case. But after detectives traveled to Twin Falls Idaho on August 15, 2019, Pankey refused to answer questions. Commander Smith stated Pankey has not been charged with Jonelle’s murder, but he is being investigated in relation to her death.
On June 19, 2020, a heavily redacted autopsy report of the remains was released. The report noted that the remains were received in a body bag and were wrapped in a white bed sheet, and that the bones were mixed with dirt and debris. The bones were separated and X-rays were taken, but results of any testing or findings from the autopsy are redacted from the report.
As of July 29, 2020, the case is being treated as a homicide, with authorities still actively investigating. No arrests have been made thus far.
Jonelle was described as a Caucasian female with brown hair, brown eyes, is 5'3 and weighs 115 pounds. She had a scar on her chin, had pierced ears and wore a full set of braces on her teeth at the time of her disappearance.
She was last seen wearing a light blue ski jacket, a red blouse, a dark gray sweater vest, a charcoal gray skirt and house slippers.