WELD COUNTY, Colo. — Steve Pankey was found guilty by a jury of felony murder and second-degree kidnapping on Monday in the 1984 death of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.
Pankey was found not guilty of first-degree murder after deliberation.
He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years on the murder and kidnapping convictions.
Jim Matthews, Jonelle's father, said during victim impact statements that the family has been haunted by the case since her death 38 years ago.
"As these two trials have shown, you have been obsessed with your actions, and your consciousness could not let you forget," Jim Matthews said. "You have been a prisoner of your own mind.
"You've claimed to be a Christian on many occasions," Matthews continued. "There's still hope for you. It is not too late to confess your sins, which is the first step to your forgiveness. The second step is to repent or turn away from your evil ways. ... It's up to you, and it's not too late, Steve Pankey."
Before the judge announced the sentence, Pankey made a quick statement expressing his disagreement with the result of the trial.
"I am a Christian, I will be in heaven," Pankey said. "I am innocent, and this is not justice for Jonelle."
> Watch the full sentencing:
"I cannot forgive him for how he killed Jonelle," said Gloria Matthews, Jonelle's mother, in a news conference after the sentencing. "God's the only one that can forgive evil, and I feel that this is evil. "
Pankey previously went to trial in the same case last fall, but the jury could not reach a consensus on charges of first-degree murder, felony murder and second-degree kidnapping. A mistrial was declared on those counts; however, jurors did convict Pankey of false reporting.
Jonelle was last seen on Dec. 20, 1984, when she was dropped off at her Greeley home following a Christmas concert. When her father returned home about an hour later, Jonelle was not there.
The case stumped investigators for decades, until July 2019, when Jonelle's remains were found by oil workers digging in a Weld County field. More than a year later, in October 2020, a grand jury indicted Pankey on charges of first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping with a weapon, as well as two-sentence enhancing crimes of violence counts.
Following the mistrial, Weld County prosecutors decided to move forward with a second trial on the more serious charges, and opening statements in that trial were on Oct. 7.
Prosecutors presented weeks of evidence and testimony before resting its case Wednesday. Pankey's defense team wrapped up its portion of the trial on Thursday, ahead of closing arguments Friday morning.
Prosecutors conceded during his first trial that there was no DNA linking Pankey to the crime. Analysts tried but were unable to recover any useable DNA from Jonelle's remains or clothing, which were buried in a field for more than three decades.
They instead relied heavily during the trial on circumstantial evidence and Pankey's statements and odd behaviors over the years to paint him as the killer.
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