Steve Pankey’s ex-wife talks living in fear up until his guilty verdict: “It was very, very frightening”

Without Angela Hicks, Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said, the suspect in the 1984 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews would have never been arrested, indicted or convicted.

As a Weld judge read the verdict finding Pankey, 71, guilty of kidnapping and murdering Jonelle in December 1984, Hicks, his 64-year-old ex-wife, felt neither joy nor sorrow. But she did feel relief.

After decades of marriage to a controlling man, years of worrying he would figure out she spoke with law enforcement about him and testifying in two trials, Hicks finally felt safe.

Emotions swirled in Hicks’ head as she sat in her car to watch a live stream of the jury delivering the verdict late last month. She felt it was in God’s hands after she showed up and told the truth twice.

“I guess the main thing I can say is relief was what went through my mind when the guilty verdict was read,” Hicks said. “I have no happiness or no sadness related to this. But I definitely felt safe for the first time since the grand jury indictment … knowing that this was the resolution to it.”

Weld Assistant District Attorney Robb Miller described Hicks as a “sweet, genuine person.” Both Miller and Rourke agreed charges may have never been brought against Pankey without Hicks’ testimony to disprove his alibi around the time of Jonelle’s disappearance.

“Her memory of it was the same every time, frankly,” Miller said. “I just thought she was a really nice woman who didn’t seem to have any ax to grind. She wasn’t a woman of scorn. She just wanted us to know what she knew.”

In October 2021, Hicks took the stand in Pankey’s initial trial, which ended with a hung jury on the kidnapping and murder charges. She wasn’t surprised by the results of last year’s trial and was relieved Pankey remained in jail.

Despite the mistrial, she felt both sets of jurors did their best and were attentive.

For Hicks, Pankey’s involvement in the case seemed more “cut and dry,” Hicks said, but the jurors were unaware of many compelling details she couldn’t testify about due to rules of evidence. That was one of the most difficult parts of testifying for Hicks. As a witness, she couldn’t say anything prejudicial or bring up any of Pankey’s prior bad acts while on the stand.

Hicks believes this information would have helped explain to the jury where she was coming from, including what her life was like with Pankey, how she came to the decision to go to law enforcement and why that was risky for her to do.

“But, I mean, all of that was put aside because you have to be fair to the defendant,” Hicks said. “I know that’s the way it had to be. But that was a very, very frustrating thing to contend with as a witness.”

Married to Pankey

After the last time Hicks spoke to Pankey in 2019, she never wanted to speak to him again.

Hicks reached the final straw when Pankey began appearing on podcasts and news channels, lying about his involvement in the case and bringing her dad into the story.

A few days after Jonelle’s disappearance, Pankey was approached by Hicks’ father, who worked at a cemetery in Greeley, he told interviewers. Her father indicated a police officer said he needed help burying a body, according to Pankey’s fabricated story.

Pankey admitted to making it up in his 2021 testimony. Hicks felt like Rourke’s cross-examination of Pankey cleared her father’s name.

“I was very relieved at that because my dad was just such a good, honest, kind man, and to have Steve use him like that was just horrible for me,” Hicks said.

Pankey’s lies about her father were unforgivable to Hicks because Pankey had already taken away her relationship with her father and removed him from her support system back in the early years of their marriage.

Hicks described her time married to Pankey as sad, difficult and isolated. But he was the father of her two children, she said, so taking the stand against him came with complications.

“It was really hard,” Hicks said. “This is someone I was married to for 23 years, and I walked away from my marriage having little to no respect for the man anymore. But there’s still that element of ‘this is the father of my children.’”

In the 1980s, Pankey prohibited Hicks from driving, reading newspapers, watching TV or listening to music. He announced the ban, she previously testified, by smashing a stereo as she was listening to a cassette tape while she was doing chores around the house. Hicks felt she had to walk on eggshells around Pankey.

That’s why she complied when he demanded she never speak to her father again. She felt she had no choice but to tell her dad he was being too intrusive in her marriage. It wasn’t true, but she had to convince him to stay away for his own protection, she said.

“When he made me break it off with my dad, he told me, ‘If your dad shows up here, I’m going to kill him and I’m going to use every opportunity to piss on his grave,’” Hicks said. “Those were his exact words.”

December 1984

When Pankey came home in the afternoon on Dec. 21, 1984  — the day after Jonelle’s disappearance  — he announced their family would go visit his family for Christmas in California. The unexpected trip came as a surprise to Hicks because he previously made the decision not to go.

Hicks asked Pankey what they’d do with their two dogs, and he said he dumped them. She never saw the dogs again.

In the early morning hours the next day, the family left for their trip. Hicks had to pack in a hurry.

The ride to California was silent, but on the way back to Greeley, Pankey forced Hicks to flip through the radio stations in search of news about Jonelle’s disappearance.

At the time, Hicks assumed Pankey’s obsession stemmed from Russ Ross, a family friend of the Matthews who dropped Jonelle off at her home the night she went missing, possibly being under suspicion and the Sunny View Church of the Nazarene’s name coming up in light of Jonelle’s disappearance.

Ross was Pankey’s former boss from 7 Up around the time he was fired and a Sunny View member. The Matthews family regularly attended Sunny View after they moved to Greeley. Pankey had been excommunicated from the church prior to their arrival for an incident that occurred between him and another member.

Pankey’s interest continued when they arrived back in Greeley, Hicks said. Instead of going straight home after driving all day on Christmas, Pankey drove past their home to a Safeway and made Hicks purchase newspapers about Jonelle’s disappearance. While sitting in the parking lot, she read him every story upon his request.

In the days following their return from California, Hicks noticed Pankey digging around their property and witnessed him standing near a burning vehicle holding a shovel.

“It didn’t make sense to me … his digging in the yard,” Hicks said. “And I couldn’t make sense of the car being on fire, but you also couldn’t talk to him. I felt like I couldn’t because … it was just not safe to delve into why he did some things.”

Prosecutors found the details about the day they left for their trip in a hurry to the days after they returned to be the most compelling parts of Hicks’ testimony. Miller pointed out that Pankey wrote and sent an alibi letter in 2013 to Weld County to try and cover up anything Hicks recalled from Dec. 20, 1984, and the days that followed.

“Without those pieces of information, I don’t think we could have disproven what the defendant wrote in that alibi letter,” Rourke said. “And so to me, that was the single most significant telling of what she recalled that really, to be honest with you, put me over the top in terms of charging him in the first place.”

Hicks goes to law enforcement

It wasn’t until back in 1995, when they lived in Idaho, that Pankey made a statement that made Hicks’ blood run cold as she pieced together the events of December 1984.

Hicks couldn’t find her paycheck in her cubby at work, and asked the owner, who was also her and Pankey’s landlady. She told Hicks she had “a lot of nerve,” explaining they hadn’t paid their rent.

Hicks went to discuss the rent situation with Pankey, who responded he used the money on legal fees because the Sun Valley police were persecuting him. Prior to this, Pankey had constant problems with law enforcement, Hicks said, and he was suing people left and right. She called it “an endless barrage of nothing real serious.”

But this time, she started asking questions about what was going on. Pankey told her he needed the money because he wouldn’t tell Sun Valley police what they wanted to know about Jonelle Matthews without gaining immunity first.

“Jonelle Matthews?” Hicks asked, trying not to show panic or any emotion.

“Do you really think I would hurt her when she looked so much like you?” Pankey responded.

In that instant, Hicks said all of a sudden the events of 1984 — the car catching fire, the quick trip to California, the dumping of the dogs — all came together in her mind.

“I mean, then to me, it was just like, ‘Oh my god, this is something else,’” Hicks said. “Because I didn’t know he was going to the police or the FBI. He never shared that with me. Nobody ever came to me to ask, ‘Hey, your husband’s coming in and saying this, what do you have to say about it?’”

Pankey then began leaving documents and court paperwork on Hicks’ desk titled, “Angie’s files.” She said he would try to sue everyone from a car dealership to a dentist, but in his pages of documents, there would often be a paragraph or two about Jonelle. Within about two weeks, Hicks received two or three of these files, she said.

Since Pankey told her about his attempts to gain immunity, she decided to go to the Sun Valley police. She then learned Pankey had gone to multiple law enforcement agencies over the years.

Eventually, Sun Valley police put together a file detailing everything Hicks shared and sent it to the Greeley Police Department.

“I was terrified because I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do if they asked him something?’” Hicks said. “And here I am with my two kids. What am I going to do? It was very, very frightening.”

Pankey testified he didn’t know Hicks took any of these measures back in the 90s.

“She was trying to do the right thing back in the 90s when she went to the police then,” Miller said. “I think she obviously had some fears about doing it. She didn’t say, ‘I know he did it.’ She said, ‘Here’s what happened to me back in 1984 that really bothers me.’”

From the mid-90s until 2019, the information Hicks gave to police sat there because the Greeley Police Department didn’t investigate the file sent from Sun Valley. During that time, she felt concerned, but she also believed she did everything she could safely do.

“It was a very unsettling, distressing thing to go through,” she said.

Even after the divorce, Pankey continued to send her documents, including dozens of letters he sent to Weld County.

“I still don’t know why he did it,” she said. “But it just was unnerving.”

Closure

After years of waiting to feel safe with Pankey behind bars, especially after testifying against him in the trials, Hicks is not taking the simple things in life for granted.

Hicks plans to pay off her farm in 16 months and sell the business she built to purchase a commercial greenhouse to propagate roses and work on her writings.

“The things that people take for granted, like opening up your own mail, listening to music, going for a drive in the car if you want to, or reading a newspaper or reading a book, you have no idea how much I value that after being in a relationship where those things were denied to me,” Hicks said. “So, every day just seems like … there is going to be something to hopefully look forward to or to do. I guess I am a simple person in that regard.”

Hicks is thankful for the work of Detectives Robert Cash and Mike Prill, the Weld District Attorney’s Office, the jurors and Judge Timothy Kerns for listening to her, working tirelessly on this case and being fair and impartial. Although it was intimidating and difficult to sit 10 feet away from Pankey and testify against him, Hicks was always told by her father to do the right thing and tell the truth.

During both visits to Greeley for her testimony, Hicks visited Jonelle’s grave and left a pink rose with a purple ribbon for her.

“My heart goes out to the Matthews family, and I am just heartbroken about what happened to Jonelle,” Hicks said.

Pankey’s verdict was significant for three reasons, Rourke said.

The number one reason was the person who killed Jonelle will finally pay for it. Second, the verdict gave the family and community closure. The third reason: Hicks would finally be safe from Pankey.

“To give her that opportunity to get up and say, ‘I get to speak on behalf of Jonelle, but also I get to talk about my own trauma that I’ve suffered in my own life at the hands of the same guy,’” Rourke said. “I hope that she found that to be an empowering experience.”

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