One day in late 2020, Robin Warder, host of the true-crime podcast The Trail Went Cold, noticed something odd as he scrolled through a summary of listeners who support his show through Patreon. One subscriber, Steve Pankey, had the same name as a person of interest in the unsolved 1984 disappearance of Jonelle Matthews, a lesser-known case that Warder’s show had been the first podcast to cover.
As Warder’s podcast detailed in a 2017 episode, Matthews had gone missing from her home in Greeley, Colorado, following a Christmas concert in 1984. She was 12 years old at the time and had presumably been kidnapped. For 35 years, no clues were ever uncovered that revealed what had happened. But then two completely unexpected things happened.
First, in April 2019, Steve Pankey made an unsolicited call to investigators with offers to divulge what he knew about the disappearance. Pankey, a former Greeley resident, had not been on investigators’ radar, but they were obviously intrigued by his offer, especially when they realized that he’d been making similar offers for years yet somehow had never attracted much interest. Then, just three months later, in July 2019, a crew digging an oil pipeline in a rural area around 18 miles southeast of Greeley accidently discovered Jonelle’s remains. Forensic analysis determined that Matthews died by a single gunshot wound to the head. The cold case was thrust back into the spotlight, and a few months later, Pankey, at the time 68, became the first person of interest publicly named since the investigation began.
Pankey had moved to Idaho a few years after Jonelle Matthews went missing. A self-described “eccentric,” he twice ran as a long shot candidate for Idaho governor. He also self-published a book called Graveyards about a small-town murder, featuring characters with the same names as locals from Greeley. More recently, he had became a “podcast junkie” (his own words) and supported several true-crime podcasts through Patreon besides The Trail Went Cold, including Already Gone, The Vanished and Trace Evidence.
“I’ve never really experienced anything like this before,” Warder says. “I’ve talked to people who have had personal connections to a case, maybe knew the victims or knew some of the criminals involved, but this is the first time I ever got conclusive proof that someone who actually was charged with one of the crimes that I covered was actually listening to my show.”
Then, in October 2019, Pankey did something quite unusual for a potential suspect in a murder: He started giving interviews to podcasts and news outlets, telling his side of the story. On Unfound, a podcast dedicated to covering missing persons cases, host Ed Dentzel agreed to have Pankey on the program, and, over a three-and-a-half-hour conversation, Pankey related his history in Greeley, his knowledge of the Jonelle Matthews case, and his interactions with police regarding the investigation. He sounded thoughtful but open, like a politician affirming he had nothing to do with a scandal but who nonetheless doesn’t mind the chance to talk at length about his noninvolvement. He discussed his previous run-ins with the law while living in Greeley, but he insisted he’d never heard of the Matthews family until news broke that Jonelle was missing, and that he had absolutely nothing to do with her disappearance and death.
The detectives who were investigating Pankey were unimpressed by his version of events, but they were very interested in the fact that he’d said them. Despite finding her remains, they still had no murder weapon, no DNA, and no witnesses who had seen what happened to Jonelle. But now, Pankey’s unfiltered statements compounded his already-suspicious eagerness to talk about the case, providing a detailed account of his version of events that they could cross-check against their own investigation.
The motives behind Pankey’s desire for publicity seemed particularly sinister when he was ultimately arrested for kidnapping and murder and extradited to Colorado to stand trial. In court, the prosecution and defense both attempted to answer the question of why a person of interest in a current murder investigation would volunteer to do such public interviews, and furthermore, why he would pick a true-crime podcast as his platform.
At around 8:15 p.m. on December 20, 1984, Jonelle Matthews was dropped off at home by a friend’s father after singing in a Christmas choir concert. She briefly had the house to herself — her dad was at her sister’s basketball game and her mom was out of town. A teacher called the home at 8:30 and asked Jonelle to tell her father, who was the school principal, that she wouldn’t be coming in the next day. That was the last time anyone spoke to Jonelle.
When her dad returned home, less than an hour after Jonelle had been dropped off, he found the TV on and a space heater running next to Jonelle’s favorite chair, but his daughter was not there. Footprints were discovered outside the home; someone, presumably the perpetrator, had attempted to erase them with a rake. The Greeley Police Department (GPD) began a large-scale search.
“It was all hands on deck,” recalled retired GPD detective and current Greeley mayor John Gates in an interview with The Colorado Sun not long after Pankey was indicted. “We walked the neighborhood. It was dark. Nobody in that neighborhood saw anything. It wasn’t long before we started thinking that this was probably not going to end well.”
That night was frigidly cold, and the vastness of the areas surrounding Greeley made the search for a missing girl all the more foreboding. Greeley is in the northeastern part of the state, an area known for its oil drilling and cattle industry. Hills roll on for miles toward the distant mountains, and the landscape is straddled by long stretches of wooden fencing intended to keep snow drifts from blowing into the road. There are endless places to hide, and the shadows of every hillock or ravine or drilling installation make the scenery that much more ominous.
President Reagan would go on to mention Jonelle in a 1985 speech that launched the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and she was one of the first missing children featured on the National Child Safety Council’s national milk carton program. Various people in Greeley were questioned as part of the investigation, including the son of the Matthews’ neighbor, but investigators found “no criminatory evidence” in the man’s home, and an officer later testified that the investigation had never produced any viable suspects. The family did interviews on numerous local and national news programs, but no concrete clues about what actually happened ever surfaced.
“We did about everything we could do, trying to contact everyone we could to determine if anyone had seen anything,” retired Greeley police captain Jack Statler testified at Pankey’s trial. “Psychics, religious visions. We had multiple reports across the country of sightings.”
The GPD periodically reexamined the case over the succeeding decades, and in 2013 the investigation was handed over to veteran detectives Robert Cash and Michael Prill. As Prill would go on to testify at Pankey’s trial, the initial investigation was shoddy and the case file extremely disorganized. One of the first things the new team did was build a modern database for the thousands of reports and tips and interviews that had accumulated over the years. Still, the case remained very much unsolved.
Then the investigation got an incredible jolt of lightning when Jonelle Matthews’ remains were discovered completely by accident in July 2019. DNA testing irrefutably proved the remains to be hers, and Jonelle’s parents, Jim and Gloria Matthews, moved back to the United States from their retirement in Costa Rica to be more readily available for the ensuing investigation. The family hosted a closure celebration in Greeley that August and a more private ceremony the following day.
But that wasn’t the only substantial discovery that year. It is unclear exactly when Steve Pankey became a serious person of interest, but in April 2019, six months before his public interviews and three months before Jonelle’s body was discovered, he made an unsolicited call to GPD detectives to offer what he knew about the case. He claimed that, in his capacity as a pastor while living in Greeley, he had been given confidential information, and he would reveal what he knew if he was granted “a deal” or “immunity.” This actually wasn’t the first time Pankey had offered to share what he knew about the case. It was one of many similar calls he’d made to law enforcement over the years, offering this type of exchange, and detectives said he’d also referenced the Matthews disappearance in numerous other unrelated court filings, apparently attempting to leverage his insider knowledge of the case to gain favor in completely unrelated legal situations. No one had ever accused him of being involved in Matthews’ disappearance, yet he kept bringing up the case, ultimately turning the attention toward himself. Later, it was revealed that he had commented on online stories about the case, stating that the mystery would never be solved without a deal. He told an Idaho police officer he’d “buried more people than you know” in Colorado, and he said on more than one occasion that Jonelle “died before she crossed 10th Street” in Greeley.
“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,’” said Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke at Pankey’s trial.
But Pankey never revealed what this supposed information was, and evidently his overtures never reached the right people. Detective Prill testified that the only reference to Pankey in the voluminous Matthews case file was an old note to interview a “Pastor Pankey” at some point, as a matter of routine, but it didn’t appear that he had ever been interviewed, let alone investigated.
But after his 2019 call to the police, detectives began speaking with Pankey’s family members around the country. It turned out his ex-wife had long suspected her former husband might have had a role in the Matthews disappearance.
In December 1984, Pankey, his then-wife and their son lived at a house on the western edge of 10th Street, one of the main drags in Greeley, around two miles from where the Matthews family lived. In her conversations with police and later testimony, Pankey’s ex-wife recalled how, the morning after Jonelle Matthews disappeared, Pankey had announced that the family would be going to California that very day for a holiday visit. A few days later, on the drive back, Pankey listened to the radio obsessively and demanded that his wife pick up newspapers with any mention of the case and read the articles to him. Back at home, Pankey started digging in the backyard and yelled at her to stay away; not long after, a car on the property “burst into flames” and was disposed of. While she found the behavior odd, she didn’t really suspect him of being involved until 1990, when an Idaho detective called her to ask about Pankey — who had apparently called the department, mentioning the Matthews case and proposing one of his deals to offer information in exchange for immunity.
Over the succeeding decades, Pankey made repeated references to Jonelle Matthews, his ex-wife said. When their own son was murdered by his girlfriend in 2008, at the memorial service Pankey wondered aloud if he was being punished for Jonelle’s disappearance. Yet remarkably, none of this information seems to have incited any action at the Greeley Police Department. An Idaho police officer testified that Greely detectives “didn’t seem interested” when he tried to send them information and notes about the case following an interview with Pankey in 2009. Pankey’s sister-in-law also testified that she had attempted to report strange things he’d said, but the response was similarly tepid and seemingly went no further.
When Jonelle Matthews’ remains were found, Pankey’s ex-wife said he called her to talk about it, despite the fact that the pair had not spoken in years. She said he seemed especially animated, like there was a sense in the air that things were heating up. He was right. Despite the missteps of the earlier investigations, the detectives were all in this time, and the evidence against Pankey continued to mount.
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In August 2019, Pankey was sitting at home in his condo in Twin Falls, Idaho, when the buzzer rang.
“Steve! How you doing!” a voice said cheerfully.
“Detective Cash — are you at my front door?” Pankey asked.
Indeed he was. Detectives Cash and Prill had made the nine-and-a-half-hour drive to try to talk to Pankey unannounced. They had already spoken with him a few times on the phone and had even developed an odd kind of banter; Pankey half-laughed in surprise when the detectives showed up.
In the courtyard in front of his apartment complex, Pankey sat on a bench as the detectives casually but seriously stood above him. Pankey wasn’t sure if he should be flattered or scared that they were now paying him enough mind to talk to him. Either way, he seemed to be getting his wish that the Greeley police were finally interested in what he had to say.
Steven Dana Pankey, the son of a pastor, was born in 1951 in California and briefly served in the U.S. Army before a series of odd jobs eventually led him to Greeley, where he found work as a car wholesaler and live-in janitor at the Sunny View Church of the Nazarene. (Though he would claim to be a pastor, numerous members of the church have said he never served in that capacity, and there is no state record of him having been ordained.) He married in 1978, and the couple welcomed their first child the following year.
Pankey is happy to talk about his life in Greeley — he did so extensively on the Unfound podcast as well as other outlets — but everything he recounts tends to lead to more questions than answers. One thing that is clear is that Pankey made himself known to the local police over the years. He openly talked about the accusations of sexual assault levied against him, saying he’d been accused of “date rape” by a woman whom he said was upset with him after he’d gotten her pregnant then abandoned her after she went to Britain to get an abortion.
The day before Jonelle Matthews went missing, he had even been arrested for trying to cash a bad check, then bonded out the next day, something his then-wife didn’t know about for decades.
In the Unfound interview, Pankey recounted that he and his family were indeed on their way back from a holiday trip to California when the news broke that a local girl had disappeared. But the trip had long been planned, he said, and it wasn’t that unusual that he’d been transfixed by the case — everyone in the area was.
He wasn’t entirely surprised that he had been named a person of interest in the disappearance, he said, even if it had taken decades to come to that point. He claimed it was all part of a conspiracy, the result of a feud with the Greeley Police Department that dated back to the late 1970s, when officers had repeatedly harassed him because he was a “reformed homosexual” who had once been in a live-in relationship with a boyfriend and had been discharged from the military as a result.
Pankey acknowledged that he’d had numerous run-ins with the police and various Greeley residents over the years, including the man whom had taken Jonelle home from the Christmas concert the night she’d gone missing. That man had been Pankey’s boss when he worked for the local 7 Up distributor, which Pankey had successfully sued after he’d gotten fired for trying to start a union. That man was connected to the local police, Pankey said, and attended the same church Pankey had been kicked out of, which Pankey characterized as the headquarters of a group of powerful residents he claimed were out to get him. (Both this man and Jonelle’s father were investigated and cleared by police.)
Pankey was known as a divisive figure in town, especially given his past interactions with law enforcement. Residents testified about a time in 1978 when they’d had to physically restrain Pankey and take his car keys. They’d kicked him out of the church and onsite lodgings following sexual assault allegations, but Pankey had refused to leave. Police also returned a few months later when Pankey came back to the church and kept banging on the door during a choir practice.
On Unfound, Pankey referenced a specific event that he felt suggested the GPD might have had something to do with Matthews’ disappearance. It is unclear if this was the major piece of inside information he often claimed to have come across, but he said it had made a big impression on him. On December 27, 1984, he said, a week after the disappearance, a relative who worked at the local cemetery came by the Pankeys’ house and, with a look of obvious fear on his face, asked Pankey if he knew how to get rid of a body. Pankey said that the man had told him a few local police officers had been asking him about the best place to bury someone, and “it didn’t take a rocket scientist” to assume the body in question was Jonelle’s. Later on, Pankey claimed, police would try to make him a patsy for the crime, to punish him with continued harassment for having been gay and also in retaliation for crossing members of their circle. (Why would police kill a middle school student in the first place? According to Pankey, it was because Jonelle’s birth mother was Hispanic, a teenager when Jonelle was born, and Pankey figured that members of the church wanted to “put her in her place.” “That’s what I believe, but I can’t prove it,” he said.)
Pankey spoke calmly and patiently on the podcast, with Dentzel giving him space to tell his side of the story, but also interrupting him to clarify the many twists and turns in the narrative. Pankey didn’t sound particularly worried that he was a person of interest in the case; he stated repeatedly that he hoped the crime would be solved and the perpetrator brought to justice. He said he appreciated Dentzel’s no-nonsense attitude and felt he’d been very fair to him.
Pankey and his family moved away from Greeley in 1987 and eventually settled in Idaho. In 1993, he would self-publish his murder mystery book, Graveyards. He and his wife divorced in 2001, and he ran twice for statewide office in Idaho, where he made under-the-fold headlines with his unusual life story. According to his Idaho governor’s campaign website, he had been raised on “traditional 1950’s Christian Liberty minded core values,” and he looked back fondly on the days of the Red Scare, saying that today’s reality proved “Senator McCarthy’s Communist-Globalist claims were accurate.”
When detectives arrived at his house in Twin Falls in August 2019, Pankey was working as a property manager for the complex he lived in. He told the detectives in a hesitant, sometimes wavering voice that he was working with his Twin Falls attorney to once again try to broker a deal with the Weld County District Attorney’s office to reveal what he knew about Jonelle’s disappearance. After about 10 minutes, he began to get agitated and broke the conversation off, telling detectives not to contact him directly again or he’d consider it stalking. But he did arrange to give a DNA sample to the Twin Falls Sheriff’s Office a few days later, to be sent on to the Greeley police. He had nothing to hide, he said: “I’ll give you the damn DNA.”
On September 4, Pankey got a call telling him that he needed to come to the sheriff’s office to finish some of the paperwork associated with his DNA sample. Pankey promptly called his lawyer, and he was leaving the parking lot to drive over to speak with him when his vehicle was swarmed by law enforcement. A SWAT team arrived with guns drawn to search his property, and they later walked away with boxes of documents and more than a dozen electronic devices that forensic analysis revealed had thousands of deleted searches for information about Jonelle Matthews.
Local and national news filed stories about how a former fringe political candidate in Idaho was now the primary suspect in a decades-old murder, and true-crime communities quickly picked up the discussion. Then Pankey himself started to reach out to set up his interviews on Unfound and several other outlets. He would go on to give the hosts up-to-the-moment accounts of everything he’d experienced so far, and he said he would do everything he could to help with the investigation.
The accumulated case against Pankey was presented to a Weld County Grand Jury in September 2020, which resulted in a formal indictment that October. Pankey was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, second-degree kidnapping and two crimes of violence, and he was taken into custody in Idaho. It was at that point that Robin Warder and several other podcasters realized Pankey had been donating to them, and listeners launched into online discussions about the unexpected overlap between the podcasts and an actual accused murderer.
“When they arrested him, I was at work and my phone started blowing up — I knew I had to go home and look at the report on the news with my husband and process everything that was going on,” says Jonelle’s sister, Jennifer Mogensen, who was 16 when her sister disappeared and now lives in Washington State. The family had gone to the Sunnyview Church of the Nazarene, where Pankey worked, in the late 1970s, but they couldn’t recall ever even hearing of him until the news broke that he was a suspect and he started giving his interviews.
The trial of Steve Pankey took place in Courtroom 11 in the Centennial Center of the Weld County Courthouse, a modern building that sits behind the stately, giant-columned courthouse in downtown Greeley. Inside, the Centennial Center is functionally bureaucratic. The ceilings are low, the floors shiny but scuffed, and Courtroom 11 has pew seating that would feel packed with 30 people. The back two rows of the courtroom were filled with the sounds of laptop keyboards clicking throughout the duration of the trial. Among the media covering the case were young reporters from the Greeley Tribune and the Coloradoan and a CBS correspondent who had recently interviewed the family of the missing Gabby Petito, whose tragic saga was unfolding at the same time as the Pankey trial. A podcast producer sat in the front row of the gallery, headphones on and a recorder running anytime court was in session.
Three career prosecutors from the Weld Country District Attorney’s office sat crowded around a table in front of the judge. District Attorney Michael Rourke spoke confidently and directly, wasting little time in getting his point across, a marked contrast to Anthony Viorst, the single defense attorney sitting next to Steve Pankey, who took a more measured, intelligently befuddled approach. Pankey sat closest to the witness box, so witnesses almost had to strain to stay looking straight ahead and avoid making eye contact with the man they were testifying against.
In his opening statement, Rourke said Pankey’s life showed a pattern of “statements and behavior that will lead you to one conclusion — that he is the individual we have been looking for for 37 years.” Many of those statements had been repeated in the course of Pankey’s podcast interviews, and Unfound host Ed Dentzel was among the many people called to testify about his interactions with Pankey.
Despite a few years covering hundreds of missing person cases, Dentzel had never been to a trial before, or even in a courtroom, and he says he had tunnel vision as he strode to the witness stand. But his radio-ready voice was commanding enough when he introduced himself that the judge asked him to move the microphone away as he testified.
Dentzel explained how Pankey had reached out to him. He explained that he was initially wary of giving too much airtime to someone accused of such a terrible crime. But, as a podcast host in a genre known for getting carried away with unproven recriminations, it was important for him to uphold the idea of people being innocent until proven guilty, so he’d agreed to let Pankey come on the show. The entire interview was played across two days of the trial, minus some elisions previously agreed upon by the prosecution and defense, which cut out parts where they felt Dentzel was editorializing.
The fact that Pankey had been able to get his interview aired didn’t mean his stories had any merit, District Attorney Rourke told the jury. On the contrary, the interviews showed he was willing to lie publicly about his background and present distorted versions of events — behaviors the prosecution hoped the jury would find important in the absence of definitive physical evidence.
Testimony would show there was little about Pankey that was trustworthy or likeable. He was an abusive, controlling husband with a self-described “history of violence against women,” who used the patriarchal teachings of conservative religion to justify his actions.
He’d been arrested for assorted crimes over the years, from menacing to theft to antagonizing police, and numerous witnesses from Greeley’s Sunnyview Church of the Nazarene discussed the times he’d had to be physically removed from the church. Pankey’s ex-wife gave tearful testimony about their terrible marriage and Pankey’s domineering personality.
Witness testimony exposed numerous inconsistencies in the version of events Pankey had given to Unfound and other outlets, steadily undercutting the small details Pankey recounted to bolster his story. A retired FBI agent described one of the more bizarre encounters he’d had with the accused. Back in 1986, when Pankey was being questioned in another alleged sexual assault, he’d told the FBI agent he thought there might be a sex cult involving people from the Sunnyview Church that required a human sacrifice (i.e., Jonelle Matthews), but Pankey doesn’t seem to have mentioned this theory again.
While there were some compelling revelations on the stand, the reality was that some of the events testified to had happened well over 40 years ago, and the only DNA relevant to the case had been taken from the remains to prove that they were Jonelle’s. (The prosecution would also note that Pankey had only volunteered to give his DNA after reading an article about the discovery noting that none of the perpetrator’s DNA had been recovered.) Pankey’s history of alleged sexual assault was mentioned at the trial, but the defense would argue these alleged incidents all involved adult women, and none of the evidence presented at the trial placed Pankey at the Matthews house or proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pankey was anything more than a weird, disreputable guy who was too vocal about his interest in the disappearance.
“I think this particular murder case was very light on scientific evidence of any type, which in the 21st century was pretty odd,” Dentzel would later say in an interview with the podcast Brainscratch.
In fact, Pankey’s volubility was central not only to the prosecution’s case but also to attorney Anthony Viorst’s defense. All you had to do was reference his unsolicited interviews. “He has never hidden his interest in the Jonelle Matthews case. He loves these true-crime cases,” Viorst said. Interest in the disappearance didn’t mean Pankey had any more to do with it than other true-crime fans have to do with the murders they discuss. “People really like this stuff. It’s a legitimate sort of hobby, if you will.”
The publicity surrounding the trial was nothing new to the Matthews family, as they’d long been used to speaking with reporters about the case. A film crew “even came to one of my basketball games to film me playing for one of the news features” back in the 1980s, Mogensen says, and the family was already on a first-name basis with a few of the journalists attending the trial. Those who didn’t know them looked for openings during breaks or at the end of the day to politely ask for interviews or statements.
In the beginning, the family had appreciated the grim import of getting out as much information as possible about Jonelle. But they could see journalists’ approach change when the case transitioned from a missing person case to a homicide investigation. With a homicide, much of the mystery was gone, and so too was the delicacy of communication that upholds hope. Once that went away, reporters were brusquer about getting information to meet deadlines, but Mogensen says she tries to look past their rudeness and appreciate the broader impact of the work they’re doing. “I never felt obligated to do [interviews] but if I can spend 10 minutes and it can help this case, or someone else’s, then great,” she says.
Today, Mogensen is part of support group in Washington for people who’ve lost family members to murder, helping them understand the dynamics of the media as it relates to modern true-crime stories. “People will say, ‘I heard your sister’s case’ on such-and-such podcast,” she says. “You plug in her name and all these podcasts come up.” Mogensen warily agreed to appear on a podcast called Killer Vibes, hosted by Colorado State University students, to talk about her sister’s case — thinking perhaps she could use her experience to provide a good example of how to handle being in the spotlight.
But she was disappointed when she listened to the episode containing her interview. As the episode draws to a close, the hosts take the somewhat humorous route characteristic of a certain strain of true-crime podcast, making jokes and playing a guessing game about who they think is the most likely suspect. Although Mogensen understands that the hosts play up the personas they’ve built for themselves and aim for the kind of entertainment their listeners have come to expect, she says there was little to be gained from the experience, and it isn’t something she will be doing again.
Deriving entertainment from the suffering of others is a long-criticized element of the genre, but there is another aspect of fandom that warrants consideration.
When news broke that Pankey was implicated in the Matthews disappearance, hosts and fans took to Twitter to discuss this strange turn of events. “What in the world! True crime is much closer than you thought,” user @truecrimeaure commented in a thread about The Trail Went Cold host Robin Warder’s realization that Pankey was one of his patrons. Fair enough, as it is shocking to realize something so violent is directly associated with an interest you have. But the statement also suggests an intense detachment — perhaps true crime is closer than this user thinks because they don’t consider the stories fully real. And they are, of course, real cases involving real people.
Yesterday, this man was indicted for the 1984 murder of 12-year old Jonelle Matthews, so it’s horrifying to see that he’s one of my Patreon supporters! He’s a patron for a couple of true crime podcasts, but I’m the only one who covered the Jonelle Matthews case, so… YIKES! pic.twitter.com/KySJbv8bqZ
— The Trail Went Cold (@robin_warder) October 14, 2020
For many true-crime aficionados, the hobby extends beyond listening and into collecting clues and triangulating locations and plotting out theories, an interactive whodunit whose ideal outcome is finding the clue that cracks an unbreakable case. This can be as simple as discussing the minutiae of cases on forums like Websleuths, but it can also mean snooping into the lives of people related to a case, then releasing findings (and unfounded theories) on the internet. These unfiltered and totally subjective commentaries about a case (in the form of videos that analyze the posts and pictures on the social media accounts of victims’ families and friends, for example) have created countless problems for people who have never been charged with any crime — including things the like loss of employment, ostracism and death threats.
The zeal to investigate and be part of the story can also interfere with law enforcement investigations. In 2013, rabid Reddit users tracked down a person who they thought was one of the Boston Marathon bombers, based on message board analysis of footage of the event. The family of the (wrongly) accused — a young man who had been missing for a month prior to the bombing and was completely, totally innocent of any association with the horrible crime — was hounded by amateur investigators and then reporters who picked up the story after his name and photo were blasted all over the internet. (The young man’s body would later be found in a river; he had died by suicide before the bombing took place.)
The rise of podcasts and internet message boards has fueled amateur investigations that continue long after law enforcement and families have moved on with their lives. Krista Henery, the Weld County District Attorney office’s public information officer, says her office still gets numerous requests each day from all over the world for the case file of Chris Watts, a Weld County oil worker who confessed to killing his pregnant wife and two daughters in 2018. Though the case has long since been adjudicated, every time a popular true-crime YouTuber talks about the murder, Henery gets a deluge of emails requesting the file. She must fulfill all of the requests because much of the material related to the case became public record once the trial was over; she now has an email template ready to cut and paste for each new request.
As true crime’s popularity has grown, so too has the audience that can be reached with one’s side of the story. While any lawyer (or Law & Order fan) will say that it is extremely inadvisable for anyone accused of a crime to sit down and talk for hours without counsel present (and there is almost no situation where it wouldn’t make the person look extremely guilty and/or insane), there was a sort of logic in Steve Pankey needing to get out in front of the story. As a “podcast junkie,” Pankey knew well that every aspect of his life and those of his family members’ would be discussed by podcasters, bloggers and YouTubers. Since that kind of invasive disapprobation was inevitable, Pankey figured the least he could do was use the same channels to say his full piece.
In court, defense attorney Anthony Viorst reiterated that the case against Pankey was weak and noted that attempts to link Pankey directly to the crime, such as digging up part of his former property and diving deep into his digital life, didn’t reveal anything of consequence to the Matthews disappearance. In fact, Viorst argued, the kidnapping and murder could have been committed by someone — anyone — else. Specifically, he pointed to a now-deceased man whose mother lived across the street from the Matthews family when Jonelle disappeared.
According to testimony, this man was at his mother’s home the night of December 20 and left the residence around the time Jonelle was getting home from the Christmas concert, then didn’t return until very early the following morning. The man had a history of interest in young girls, made comments about Jonelle prior to her disappearance, and apparently also knew that the footprints around the home had been obscured by a rake, having said as much on audio and video recordings back in the late 1980s when he was originally questioned by police.
As far as Pankey’s interest in Jonelle Matthews was concerned, a doctor testified that he had diagnosed Pankey with Asperger’s syndrome, which was part of what led him to be obsessed with the case and even insert himself into the investigation. Pankey had similarly tried to insert himself into the case of Sarah Johnson, who murdered her parents in Idaho in 2003, by saying he had overheard a sheriff say he had to tamper with evidence to get a conviction. His quixotic runs for political office likewise reflected the heights of his self-estimation.
In other words, Viorst, Pankey’s own lawyer, told the jury, “Steve’s a little crazy.”
“He wants to be an important person and that’s why he’s always writing to the DA’s office or the newspaper or the podcasts, whoever will listen to him,” he said. “He wants a public platform that will make him sound important for something that he’s never really had any knowledge of.”
Pankey himself was called to take the stand, an unusual step that Viorst wouldn’t ordinarily recommend. But since Pankey has made his own words so central to the case, it was important to give him the chance to weave all of the threads together and contextualize it for the jury. He stood up, stretched slightly, and walked around the table. He affirmed he would tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the judge and stepped into the witness stand a few feet to his right.
After some preliminary questions, Viorst directed the questioning to the major point Pankey wanted to make: He’d made it all up.
The church and police weren’t out to get him, he’d made up the story about his relative being asked where to hide a body, and he didn’t actually believe he was the victim of a decades-long conspiracy. “I had no knowledge” of any aspect of the case beyond what could be gleaned from Google searches and ongoing interest in the case, Pankey affirmed. The stories he told were a “very bitter retaliation of words” against people he felt had wronged him in some way, “a polite way of flipping them the bird.”
“It was pure hatred on my part,” he said.
The podcaster recording the trial held her headphones tight to her head as if to make sure she was picking up the full weight of his words, but the Matthews family sat stoically in court as they heard the latest version of events, dulled as they were by repeated exposure to bad news. They had been unsure what to think of Pankey when he’d been arrested, and now the story the prosecution was dedicated to dissecting had had its legs swept out from under it.
Earlier in the trial, Viorst commented that the district attorney’s office was going after Pankey because “it was hard to prosecute a dead man,” referring to the alternate suspect who died years. The judge admonished Viorst for the comment and told the jury to disregard it, but the implication was again clear — given the paucity of evidence, neither of the two could be ruled in or out, and prosecutors hadn’t found anything to directly incriminate Pankey. Pankey’s interviews proved he could reach a wide audience with his invented version of events, but just because he’d lied didn’t mean he was guilty of murder.
Following his own testimony and the playing of the episode of Unfound on which Pankey had appeared, Ed Dentzel exited the courtroom with the same nervous stride he’d come in with, a little shell-shocked that his own passions had led him to such a place. After listening to the podcast again in court, followed by some post-testimony reflection in his hotel room, he was comfortable that he’d conducted the interview in a “legal, moral and ethical manner” that didn’t indulge conspiracies and called out Pankey when necessary. He penned a lengthy blog post available to the podcast’s Patreon subscribers outlining his experience and thoughts on the case, but without making any concrete judgments. Instead, he used the time to reflect on how the Matthews case factored into his understanding of the dynamics of missing persons cases and how everything he’d experienced could make his podcast more effective in getting the word out about missing people across the country.
In Dentzel’s experience, after speaking with hundreds of friends and family members of missing persons, the reality is that most crimes are more mundane than people want to believe. It’s fascinating to think someone went underground and started a new life in another country, he says, or that they possessed knowledge so damning they had to be killed to prevent it from getting out.
In reality, however, many missing persons cases are suicides or drug overdoses, and when there is violence, it is often the horrifically predictable conclusion to recurring violence at home. Those are all serious epidemics in the United States, but the elevated interest in conspiracy and drama can overshadow more obvious clues about what might have happened to these victims. “It gets to the point in many of these cases where people would rather have [a case] not solved and then get to hold onto their theory than have it solved and be proved they are wrong,” Dentzel says. “They get so emotionally attached to this theory — so badly they want to be right — that it becomes part of their ego, part of their pride.”
Pankey understood this dynamic when he injected his own narrative, with its element of small-town conspiracy. Even though he admitted his story was a lie, he brought the case to a new level of strangeness by recentering the drama around him.
On the other hand, says CBS correspondent Richard Schlesinger, who hosted a 48 Hours episode about the Matthews case, the specter of voyeurism inherent in covering crime is an accepted consequence of investigating what we learn from the tragedies that befall us. It is always “important to show how the justice system works,” he says, and in this case, “how it handles someone going out and giving these kinds of unscripted interviews.”
“I believe strongly there’s great value in knowing how cases come together and how they’re tried,” Schlesinger says. “Trials are open to the public for a reason, and I think that’s very valuable.”
One of the larger issues revealed at Pankey’s trial were the holes in the Greeley Police Department’s original investigation into Jonelle’s disappearance. At one point, a recording of detectives Cash and Prill’s August 2019 encounter with Pankey was played in the courtroom. Prill calls detectives from that time complacent “knuckle-draggers.” (On the witness stand, Detective Prill looked down at the desk in front of him as the recording played. “It was a different time,” he said later on.) While some of this disparagement was clearly a tactic to get Pankey to trust them, it was also clear through their testimony that the ball had been dropped repeatedly. There were a few other disappearances and murders in the early 1980s in Greeley that remain unsolved today — had the GPD’s lassitude prevented these cases from being solved as well?
That’s where the true-crime obsession can be a good thing. Journalistic true-crime podcasts have harnessed the power of the internet to advocate for criminal justice reform in ways not previously possible. The work of the hosts and their production teams has led to appeals, exonerations and reforms, and has helped solve crimes. The splashy tale of a murder can make for a narrative springboard to examine where law enforcement agencies have fallen short and determine where things could be improved. (Another technological positive is the availability of crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, which can be used to help fund legal expenses — or, in the case of the Matthews family, their stay in Greeley over the course of the trial.)
Mogensen acknowledges that Pankey’s trial revealed the shortcomings of the original investigation to her family for the first time. But she says she has also never doubted that the detectives who worked the case genuinely wanted to help her family, and that the forthrightness of detectives Cash and Prill made up for previous deficiencies in the investigation. That her sister’s remains were even found and a suspect was identified were not things the family necessarily expected, and she says she was comfortable relying on the wisdom and perspicacity of the jury to make what she knows is an incredibly difficult decision to make.
In fact, sitting through the trial for the entire five weeks hadn’t made her own feelings about Pankey’s possible guilt any clearer, she says, but whatever the outcome, the events of the past few years had drawn the story closer to a conclusion than they’d ever expected.
“I didn’t feel a ton of anger seeing Steve Pankey in court. It was probably a protective mechanism, but I don’t know him and I don’t know if he did it,” she says. “We never thought we’d be here — this whole process has been a gift.”
The prosecution and defense made their closing statements and the jury retired to deliberate on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Greeley residents (including an 83-year-old retired GPD officer who flew in from retirement in Arizona to attend the trial), waited, along with the podcasters and reporters eager for the next chapter of their stories. For two days the courtroom was filled with silence, like a massive cloud holding back a storm. On the morning of Thursday, November 4, the jury filed back in to announce their findings.
They could not reach a unanimous verdict.
They could not agree whether he was guilty of kidnapping and murdering Jonelle Matthews, only that he’d lied to police, so the judge was forced to declare a mistrial. The sense of agitation coupled with the stunned silence in the room made the considerable procedural language needed to bring the trial to a conclusion seem interminable. Everyone filed out robotically, and Pankey was cuffed and led out of the room by a Weld County sheriff.
“I’m a firm believer in things happen for a reason and we can learn something from it, but still, coming home with nothing, I’m still chewing on that, I’m still processing that,” Mogensen said.
Not long after the trial concluded, the Weld County District Attorney’s office announced that it would retry Pankey. Anthony Viorst excused himself from representing Pankey again, citing a lack of time and manpower necessary to take on another case of this magnitude. Pankey said that the parting was amicable, and he has since been assigned a public defender. Public defender John Walsh noted that it is “exceedingly likely” Pankey will reenter a plea of not guilty, and right away he asked the court for six months to prepare and filed a motion intending to limit the permissible media coverage at the next trial. (The Weld County District Attorney’s office and the Greeley Police Department both declined to comment for this article, since the case hasn’t been resolved.)
Mogensen says that she has no doubt that articles and podcasts dedicated to the case will continue to be published as long as the case is still open, and she is prepared to maintain her role as the family spokesperson, especially since her parents are getting older. All things considered, aside from the pushiness of a handful of reporters and the trashiness of an occasional podcast, the media has been very fair to her family, she says, and she has made peace with the fact that doing interviews about the family’s tragedy is part of her life.
No matter whom she is speaking to about the case, she always draws strength from knowing she is not obligated to talk to anyone nor let someone else’s version of events impact her memories. If she senses a reporter or producer doesn’t have the appropriate respectfulness, they will have to deal with having an incomplete version of the story. The memories she shares with her parents of her sister are by far what is most important, and the fullest version of her family’s story is theirs to tell, when and only when they want to.
“I have always known that I’m in control,” Mogensen says. “You need me more than I need you.”
The date of the new trial is not set, and Pankey remains behind bars on a $5 million bond. As of yet, he has not appeared on any more podcasts or been granted additional interviews. His new counsel has no doubt advised him to stay mum, given just how potent his own words can be.