The Disappearance of Jonelle Matthews
It was a night that would be remembered by the neighborhood forever, and a night that lived on in the history of Greeley, Colorado.
Friday, Dec. 20, 1984: The night that 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews went missing from her home after returning from a choir concert.
“The effect on Greeley was pretty strong in this case,” said Mike Peters, former Greeley Tribune reporter and lead reporter on the case. “It was a frightening time for people.”
After years without any new information, the Jonelle Matthews case is again being looked at by investigators, as new information is released and new DNA testing methods such as genealogy, the method used in the solving a number of the most notorious crime cases, such as the solving of the Golden State Killer case.
And while mystery still surrounds that night in the neighborhood of Pheasant Run, the question remains the same: What happened to Jonelle Matthews?
The night of Dec. 20, Matthews participated in an honors choir show put on by Intrawest Bank.
Jonelle’s father, Jim Matthews, attended his older daughter Jennifer’s basketball game that night so was not home when Jonelle was dropped off at home later.
When Russell Ross, father of Jonelle’s friend Deanna Ross, showed up at the school to
pick up his daughter he saw Matthews follow her out and ask for a ride. Ross dropped Matthews off at her residence, and when she entered the house she flicked the light to show to Ross that she had made it in safely.
This was the last time that Jonelle would be seen.
“(I) have gone through that so many times,” Ross said. “I keep thinking, ‘now, is there
something I didn’t catch? Is there something I didn’t notice?’ It just looked common as it did a thousand times before.”
A lot of speculation surrounded that night, and today there are several different pieces of the story that reporters and conspiracy theorists alike discuss, such as the status of the garage door, a possible missing gas can and footprints in the snow.
However, a lot of the speculation and conspiracy around the case falls flat when looked at by investigators.
Robert Cash, lead detective on the Jonelle Matthews case for the Greeley Police Department since 2013, said that the gas can “does not correlate with the investigation,” and the footprints found in the snow also were inconclusive.
“There is speculation as far as shoe impressions in the backyard and around the house,” Cash said “Reports show that attention with those particular shoe impressions (were) relevant to this case. Now, we are not entirely sure they have to do with the case--if they were family or not.”
While there is still debate, even among the Matthews family, over whether the garage door was open, investigators believe that the relevance of this topic is not what some might think.
“The original reporting was that the garage door was open when Jim Matthews came home,” Cash said. “Over the years, the particular relevance is up for discussion”
Tom Welde, chief investigator for the Weld County District Attorney’s office, echoed this information.
“At the time, a lot of people thought it was a big deal,” Welde said, adding that some thought it would be weird for the door to be open, especially when you consider the cold weather of that night.
As the case was in the early days of Jonelle Matthews’ dissapearance, several investigators believed that Matthews might have just run away from home. Welde explained that after she went missing, investigations into schools and lockers began to see if there was any evidence that could be found to indicate that Matthews would want to run away.
But this, too, was debunked, as investigations found that there was no indication of family problems and that the scene showed that she had gotten comfortable for the night as her shoes were off and the TV was on.
Welde discussed another important piece to debunking the theory that she had simply ran away from home.
“Runaways usually come home after a couple of days,” Welde said.
While investigators searched for Jonelle, the search for a suspect was also underway. However, just like there is a lack of evidence, the suspect pool is small.
Investigators said they had suspects since the beginning of the case. But without any sort of substantial evidence or DNA samples, there is no way to tie anyone to the crime. Investigators do believe that the person that committed the crime was somebody that knew Matthews.
“By and large, there is some sort of relationship between victim and suspect,” Cash said. “I do not believe a cross country serial killer just stumbled across her house. I believe the crime happened much closer to home.”
And while investigators have suspects in mind, there is no real connection between any one person and Matthews.
So, with a lack of hard evidence, suspects or Matthews herself, there was only one thing that could happen.
THE CASE WENT COLD
After more than 30 years of searching, no suspects have been identified, no body has been located and no questions have been truly answered.
“Of course we have worked through a lot of it, but it’s really the not knowing that bothers everybody,” Ross said.
This is, in part, due to the lack of evidence that was found at the scene of the crime as well as in the surrounding area.
“I do not believe there is a single piece of evidence that is the keystone to this case,” Cash said.
Even with advancements in DNA testing and different methods being used to solve cases such as this one, there is simply not enough DNA that can be used to find Matthews.
Cash said that since there is no full DNA sample for anyone other than Matthews, they can not identify a subject. This also leads to issues when it comes to using other forms of forensic testing.
“Genetics would help if there was a body,” Cash said.
But there has been no body found in any search or investigation, even while community members gathered for an unofficial search of Weld County.
“There were several of us; we took the county; we had a map, and just made quadrants,” Ross
said. "We had tons of people wanting to help. I mean, we had the whole community pitch in saying ‘I want to help. What can I do?’”
However, this search came up flat, even as community members and farmers scoured these quadrants of Weld County for any piece of evidence to explain what happened to Matthews.
After 10 years of searching with no results, Jim and Gloria held a memorial service at the local church to pronounce Jonelle deceased.
Ross said that while this was a form of closure it was still very difficult.
“That was hard too because you are going ‘OK, well now what?’” Ross said.
While there have been nothing but dead ends for so long, the search for Matthews is not over, and the spirit of the search lives on.
THERE’S STILL HOPE
Even though advancements in DNA haven’t been able to prove useful for this case, there are still advancements and movements being made.
In January of 2018, Cash, Welde and Robert Miller, Weld County assistant district attorney, attended a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conference in Virginia to present their case to a group from several different investigation agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Behavioral Analysis Unit, among others. They confirmed the Jonelle Matthews case was the oldest on file for NCMEC.
During this conference, those gathered workshopped the case for two days. This working and discussing resulted in several different ideas, which, according to Cash, can be used to push the case forward.
Cash confirmed that information they received from this meeting was being used to move the case along and part of the reason it is being focused on now. However, he was unable to discuss the particular methods.
With newfound insight and methods in which to search, the case is being cracked open again by investigators.
“When you run into a cold case, you have to re-tool it,” Cash said. “It’s important to be well-cataloged and organized. Evidence has to be re-examined and sent out for re-evaluation. It’s important to make sure it is well organized.”
Part of this new evidence includes video of Matthews from the choir concert the night that she went missing. The release of this video was done in part with press releases to try and “shake the trees,” as Cash puts it, and see what investigators could find.
Investigators continue to look into the suspects that have been known to the case as well. Cash confirmed that he and his team believe that the responsible party still lives in the community. With this, Cash also confirmed that a male suspect who has been known to the case since the beginning is being looked into by investigators yet again.
“He is somebody that we have identified who has not been scrutinized to date, but he is known to the case since the beginning in 1984,” Cash said.
Developments in the investigation have not been made public, but as time goes on, the search continues for Jonelle Matthews.
Timeline created by Claire Oliver.