DENVER — For more than three decades, the disappearance of Jonelle Matthews hung over the city of Greeley, Colo., where the 12-year-old was taken from her family’s home days before Christmas in 1984.
“During those decades, generations of Greeley police officers have never forgotten Jonelle, many living in torment over the possibilities of what may have occurred that grim evening in 1984, and what could be done to solve this mystery,” the city’s Police Department said in a statement on Tuesday.
There was a major development in the case on July 23, 2019, when Jonelle’s remains were found in a field southeast of Greeley, the police said. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head.
And this week, the authorities announced that Steven D. Pankey, 69, a former Greeley resident who now lives in Idaho, had been indicted on Friday on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping in Jonelle’s death. He was arrested on Monday in Idaho.
On Dec. 20, 1984, according to a grand jury indictment, Mr. Pankey, armed with a gun, took Jonelle from her family’s home and killed her during the course of the kidnapping.
“This touched our whole community,” Mayor John Gates said of the impact of Jonelle’s disappearance on Greeley, a city of nearly 110,000 about 50 miles north of Denver. He added that the Police Department deserved credit for pursuing the investigation through the years. “They never put this case on the shelf,” he said.
Mr. Gates was working on the city’s police force at the time of Jonelle’s disappearance. He recalled that there was evidence at the scene that showed that she might have been abducted.
“Unfortunately, that came to fruition,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
He said he hoped that Mr. Pankey’s arrest would bring comfort to the city and to Jonelle’s family.
When Jonelle’s body was found last year, “knowing she was murdered did give us some closure,” said Jennifer Mogensen, 52, Jonelle’s older sister, who now lives in Washington State. Mr. Pankey’s arrest is “again another gift to our family,” she said.
“We live this all over again every time there’s a new step toward justice,” Ms. Mogensen said, adding that her father was “especially excited to see justice” for Jonelle.
Mr. Pankey had long been a person of interest in Jonelle’s disappearance, the police said on Tuesday. 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,” the indictment said, adding that he had repeatedly asked for immunity in exchange for information.
Among the details he gave law enforcement personnel was that a rake had been used to cover up tracks in the snow the evening she was taken, according to the indictment. Mr. Pankey had watched children walk home from the middle school that Jonelle attended, it stated.
Jonelle’s disappearance gained national attention at the time. President Ronald Reagan mentioned her case in remarks to reporters in 1985, imploring them to amplify stories of missing children.
An article in The New York Times the same year about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children quoted someone calling in to the center: “My friend and I suspect seeing Jonelle.”
“Perhaps another dead end,” the story said. “Perhaps not.”
Mr. Pankey, who made a long-shot bid for the Republican nomination for governor of Idaho in 2018, acted erratically in the days following the girl’s disappearance, Angela Hicks, his wife at the time, told investigators, asking her to read him newspaper accounts about the case.
During a church service a few months after her disappearance, when a minister said that Jonelle would be found safe, Mr. Pankey muttered, “False prophet,” his wife told investigators.
It was not clear on Tuesday if Mr. Pankey, who was being held in Idaho without bail before being returned to Colorado, had a lawyer. He told The Times News in Twin Falls, Idaho, last week that he was being framed by the police because of his sexuality as a “celibate homosexual.” He studied criminal justice in Greeley, his 2018 campaign website said.
Mr. Pankey also told the paper that on the day of Jonelle’s disappearance, he and his family had been preparing to take a vacation to Big Bear Lake, Calif., though documents he provided to investigators to support that account “contained false statements and superfluous details,” according to the indictment.
Mayor Gates said that the indictment had proved that “cold cases can actually be solved.”
“While it’s not at the forefront of everybody’s mind,” he said, “most people that were in Greeley here in ’84, they’ve always wondered, ‘What happened to this little girl?’”
Ms. Mogensen said that the killing had taken away an opportunity for her and her sister to grow closer, as they were both teenagers with a “sibling rivalry” at the time.
“It came to an abrupt end,” she said of their relationship, “when we both probably could have developed something different.”