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Idaho man charged in murder of Colorado girl who disappeared 36 years ago

DENVER (Reuters) - A former two-time candidate for governor of Idaho has been charged with the abduction and murder of a Colorado girl who vanished in 1984 and whose remains were found last year, authorities said on Tuesday.

Steven Pankey, a former two-time candidate for governor of Idaho, who has been charged with the abduction and murder of a Colorado girl who vanished in 1984, is seen in this undated mugshot released by the Weld County District Attorney's Office. Weld County District Attorney/Handout via REUTERS

Steven Pankey, 69, was indicted by a grand jury on first-degree murder and kidnapping charges in the slaying of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, Weld County, Colorado, District Attorney Michael Rourke said at a news conference.

“He (Pankey) is currently being held without bond at the Ada County (Idaho) jail where he will await extradition back to Colorado to face these charges,” Rourke said.

It was unclear from court records if Pankey had retained a lawyer.

Matthews vanished in December 1984 after she was dropped off at her home in Greeley, Colorado, about 50 miles north of Denver, after singing at a Christmas concert.

Pankey lived in Greeley at the time Matthews disappeared and watched the girl and other children walk home, according to the indictment.

Pankey abducted Matthews from her home and shot her “during the course of the kidnapping,” the indictment said.

Last year, an excavation crew working on a pipeline uncovered the girl’s remains at a remote oil and gas site in Weld County, police said.

Pankey’s name surfaced as a person of interest in the cold case because he “intentionally inserted himself in the investigation many times over the years claiming to have knowledge of the crime which grew inconsistent and incriminating over time,” including evidence that had not been publicly disclosed, the indictment said.

The Idaho Statesman newspaper reported that Pankey twice unsuccessfully ran for the governor of Idaho. In 2014, he ran on the Constitution Party ticket, and in 2018 he was a candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

In an interview with the Statesman in September 2019, Pankey denied killing the girl. “I never met Jonelle, I never met her family, I didn’t know she existed or disappeared until Wednesday, Dec. 26 (1984),” Pankey was quoted as saying.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Pankey faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Reporting by Keith Coffman; editing by Bill Tarrant, Rosalba O’Brien and Sonya Hepinstall