Trial of ex-Idaho governor longshot ends with hung jury

Posted at 10:42 PM, November 4, 2021 and last updated 2:52 PM, July 24, 2023

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — The trial of a former longshot Idaho gubernatorial candidate charged in the killing of a 12-year-old Colorado girl ended Thursday with jurors unable to reach verdicts on the most serious charges against him.

Jurors found Steve Pankey guilty of false reporting but could not reach agreement on murder and kidnapping charges.

FILE – In this undated photo provided by the Weld County, Colo., District Attorney’s Office, shows Steve Pankey, a former longshot candidate for Idaho governor charged with murder, kidnapping and other counts in the death of Jonelle Matthews, a 12-year-old Colorado girl who went missing in 1984. Pankey’s trial is set to begin Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Weld County District Attorney’s Office via AP)

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke pressed for Judge Timonty Kerns to offer an instruction encouraging jurors to reach a verdict but Kerns said further deliberation would not change anyone’s verdict, the Greeley Tribune reported.

Pankey, described by his lawyer as a paranoid true crime junkie, testified in his own defense, delivering sometimes rambling testimony. He said he pretended to know information about the case out of bitterness for police and because he wanted his former church and former employer investigated. He denied being involved in Jonelle Matthews’ disappearance and death.

Pankey was a neighbor of Jonelle 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. He 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 and asking for immunity from prosecution.

A hearing is scheduled Monday to sentence Pankey for the false reporting conviction and to discuss whether prosecutors will try again to put him on trial for murder and kidnapping.

Lacking physical evidence, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from Pankey’s ex-wife who said that Pankey unexpectedly announced the night that Jonelle disappeared that they were leaving to visit family in California early the next day. It also pointed to Pankey’s unwarranted visits and statements to law enforcement about the case, including sharing information it said had not been made public.

Pankey’s lawyer, Anthony Viorst, told jurors that Pankey, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, was a “jerk” to his ex-wife and others but was not a murderer. He also tried to generate reasonable doubt about his client’s involvement by raising the possibility of an alternate suspect.

FILE – In this Aug. 12, 2019, file photo, Jennifer Mogensen holds a poster of her adopted sister, Jonelle Matthews, who went missing and whose remains were found recently in Greeley, Colo. The trial for Steve Pankey, a former longshot candidate for Idaho governor who has been indicted in the murder of Jonelle Matthews, is set to begin Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

During his testimony, Pankey 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’s family searched fruitlessly for years and her picture was printed on milk cartons during a national missing-children campaign in the 1980s.

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.

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