By Kelly Werthmann

GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) — Opening statements began in the trial for the Idaho man charged in the murder of Jonelle Matthews, a nearly four-decades-old case that gripped Colorado. Steve Pankey has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and murder.

Jonelle Matthews (credit: CBS)

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District Attorney Michael Rourke explained there is no DNA evidence linking Steve Pankey to Jonelle Matthews. However, he said there is plenty of other proof pointing to Pankey as the girl’s killer.

“What you will hear, over and over and over again,” Rourke told the jury in his opening statement, “are statements. Statements of the defendant…and behaviors that will lead you to but one conclusion that he is the individual we’ve been looking for for 37 years.”

Prosecutors say Pankey inserted himself into the investigation over the years, providing numerous verbal and written statements to authorities in Colorado and Idaho. He also knew crucial evidence about raked over footprints at the crime scene which is a detail investigators never made public.

“The evidence of this raking… was held very close to the vest by the Greeley Police Department for years and years, knowing that the only people or other person who would know that raking occurred was the person who did it,” Rourke said.

Yet the defense argued Pankey simply had an “obsessive interest” in the case but was not involved in Jonelle’s murder, adding his Asperger’s syndrome causes Pankey to process information differently.

After opening statements, Jonelle’s family testified. Her mom, dad and sister will be the first three witnesses in the murder trial.

It was Dec. 20, 1984 when 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews sang in a concert and was dropped at home by a friend and the friend’s father. She was last seen at 8 p.m., entering the ranch-style home where she lived with her father, Jim; mother, Gloria; and sister. But when her father returned from her sister’s basketball game an hour later, Jonelle was gone.

Jim Matthews (credit: CBS)

“Our girls were very good about letting us know either writing notes or calling us or whatever if they were going to have a change of plans, so I started getting really concerned. This was not like Jonelle,” said her father, Jim Matthews, on the witness stand on Wednesday.

Pankey lived nearby and attended her church.

Defense Attorney Anthony Viorst told the court his client “tells white lies” to build self-importance.

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“Steve Pankey is a busy body and he gets into people’s business,” Viorst told the jury. “And frankly, Steve’s a little crazy.”

The defense also pointed out there were no signs of forced entry or any sort of struggle inside the Matthews’ home the night Jonelle disappeared. That means, Viorst explained, the person who took Jonelle was someone she knew and Pankey was a stranger.

“If someone like Mr. Pankey had abducted her, she would’ve kicked and screamed and fought, and someone would’ve heard, and no one did,” Viorst said.

When Jonelle’s father was on the stand, he testified he isn’t so sure his daughter was someone who’d fight back.

“I think there’s a possibility that she – I don’t know if coerced is the right word – but she could’ve been lured out of the house and gullible because she’s 12 years old,” Jim Matthews said.

Steve Pankey (credit: CBS)

In his opening remarks, Viorst said evidence will point to someone else as Jonelle’s killer – Norris Drake.

“In December 1984, [Norris’] mother, Frances Drake, lived right across the street from the Matthews family,” Viorst explained. “On the night of December 20th, Norris Drake had dinner at this mother’s house… and left either right around the time Jonelle got home or certainly while she was at home by herself.”

Viorst went on to say Norris had an interest in young girls who recently reached puberty, unlike Pankey. And Norris also knew about the raked over footprints.

“You will hear from his ex-girlfriend,” Viorst told the jury, “and she will testify that Norris Drake did not get home until the early morning hours of December 21.”

After her disappearance, the search for Jonelle was relentless. Rewards failed to turn up clues. Jonelle was considered missing until workers digging a pipeline in July 2019 discovered human remains matching her dental records in a rural area southeast of Greeley, a city about 50 miles north of Denver. Police then labeled her death a homicide. That’s when the investigation zeroed in on Pankey.

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Pankey remains in custody on a $5 million bond.

Kelly Werthmann