Out of all the states in the U.S., Colorado is the fifth-largest producer of natural gas. So, for the crew digging a pipeline in Weld County, the job seems like nothing out of the ordinary. But as they continue to move earth at the rural location, they spot something alarming underneath. And it’s not a leak. At first glance, in fact, it appears to be human remains.
What’s more, that fateful discovery would ultimately prove significant for the relatives of missing Jonelle Matthews. Jonelle had entered the world on February 9, 1972, when Terri Vierra-Martinez delivered her daughter at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California. Terri had been just 13 years old at the time, and after just a month of caring for the baby she apparently realized that she couldn’t carry on. Perhaps inevitably, then, Terri put her child up for adoption in March of the same year.
But a good family from a couple of states over would heed Vierra-Martinez’s call for adoptive parents. Yes, Jim and Gloria Matthews, based in Greeley, Colorado, had decided to add the baby girl to their family of three. Actually, they took in the little one, whom they named Jonelle, through Sunny View Church of Nazarene – their chosen place of worship. And with that, Jonelle joined big sister Jennifer to complete the Matthews family.
In July 2019 Jennifer described Jonelle to the Associated Press, revealing that her pre-teen sibling had already become “a strong, independent, opinionated 12-year-old.” She added of her sister, “She knew what she wanted and how things should be done.” Old photos of the grinning, sassy Jonelle appear to corroborate Jennifer’s account, too.
And on Friday, December 20, 1984, the ever-lively Jonelle had big plans – at least, for a 12-year-old schoolgirl. That day, you see, the Coloradoan was scheduled to perform at a nursing home alongside her choir mates from Franklin Middle School. Intrawest Bank – a financial institution of the time – had sponsored the show.
Unfortunately, Jonelle’s dad, Jim, wouldn’t be in the audience that night; instead, he had gone to watch Jennifer’s basketball game. And Gloria couldn’t make her daughter’s choir performance, either. The Matthews family matriarch’s own mother had fallen ill, so she had flown across the country to be with her.
Fortunately, Jonelle didn’t have to completely fend for herself that night. After the concert, she approached her friend Deanna Ross and asked for a ride home. Deanna’s father, Russell, duly obliged and waited until the pre-teen had made it into the house before driving off. In fact, Jonelle even flashed the lights inside to show that she had entered her home without any problems.
So, the Ross family left in their vehicle, while Jonelle remained at home alone. The 12-year-old is then said to have answered a phone call at around 8:30 p.m., taking a message from a caller who wanted to speak to her father. Her dad was the principal of Platte Valley Elementary School, and a teacher had gotten in touch to say that she couldn’t make it to work the next day.
Then it seemed that Jonelle had cozied up in the living room of her family’s home, which was situated within a safe neighborhood called Pheasant Run. Touchingly, she had even flipped on a space heater and slid into her mother’s slippers. She would have been sitting near the Christmas tree, too, which had been set up in preparation for the celebrations just five days away. But Christmas would be a completely different holiday for the Matthews family in 1984 and beyond.
You see, after Jonelle’s father, Jim, had returned home at 9:30 p.m., it quickly became clear that something out of the ordinary had happened. While he noticed that his younger daughter’s shoes and shawl were sitting close to the heater in the family room, he couldn’t actually find Jonelle anywhere.
And as the night progressed, Jonelle never came back to claim her favorite spot in the living room. Then Jennifer returned home at 10:00 p.m., after which she reported that she hadn’t seen her sister, either. At this point, Jim naturally became concerned, leading him to ring the police to tell them that his daughter seemed to have vanished.
Then, 15 minutes later, the cops arrived at the Matthews family’s home. Astonishingly, perhaps, they couldn’t find any evidence of a struggle, nor did they notice any signs of forced entry. But law enforcement did discern a set of footprints in the Colorado snow outside, with the pattern making it seem as though someone had looked in through the windows of the house.
Investigators thus initially honed in on the possibility that Jonelle had run away. Jim never believed this theory, however, as his daughter had left her shoes in the living room. The father reckoned, you see, that it would be tough for the 12-year-old to run off into the snow-covered landscape without any footwear.
Plus, as Jim later told a reporter from The Denver Post, Jonelle had a lot to look forward to. He went on to explain, “There were too many neat things happening to her. She had a girlfriend coming to sleep over [the day after she disappeared], she was going to be in the Christmas presentation at church – she’s such a ham – plus with Christmas…”
But investigators still had to follow through on the theory, leading them to open Jonelle’s school locker to see if they could find any evidence of her plans to skip town. The authorities discovered nothing out of the ordinary, however, and they also knew that Jonelle had a happy family life with her parents and sister. It had seemed, too, that the girl had snuggled up in the living room to wait for her relatives to get home. All in all, then, the police had to think fast.
And debunking the possibility that Jonelle had run away proved an important step for the team. In fact, Tom Welde, chief investigator at the Weld County District Attorney’s office, told Colorado State University, “Runaways usually come home after a couple of days.” So, without Jonelle back in Greeley, Welde and his colleagues had to consider other possibilities.
This meant looking for Jonelle herself, of course. And investigators also came up with a pool of potential suspects whom they considered may have wanted to kidnap or hurt the missing 12-year-old. Law enforcement hypothesized, for example, that the pre-teen’s birth mother may have had something to do with her daughter’s disappearance, and this avenue of inquiry led them to stake out Vierra-Martinez for weeks on end.
Yet even though the cops followed Vierra-Martinez, she never knew that her biological daughter had gone missing. In fact, she would only find out what had actually happened to Jonelle years after the fact. Furthermore, while Vierra-Martinez never got the chance to know Jonelle, she did eventually grow close to the girl’s adoptive parents after she sent them a letter requesting a meeting with their daughter. But let’s get back to the police search for now.
And, naturally, the cops did explore other potential leads. They met with Jonelle’s teachers, for example, and asked neighbors if they had seen or knew anything. The investigators even spoke to the 12-year-old’s friends, who reported that she had given them Christmas presents on December 19. The search appeared to be heating up at this time; even the FBI became involved.
Meanwhile, those who knew Jonelle could only emphasize that the bubbly girl wouldn’t have run off on her family. Lieutenant Paul Branham told The Denver Post, “Everybody we have talked to says that Jonelle wouldn’t just walk away and disappear – that it would be out of character for her.” In 1984 he also said, “We are regarding this as a possible kidnapping.”
At the time, cases of missing kids had begun to grab the national headlines. And this wasn’t just for the alarming nature of their stories, but because there were so many tales that had similar circumstances to those of the missing Matthews girl. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, a staggering number of children disappeared each year: more than one million annually. People had gotten so concerned, in fact, that the president, of all people, decided to get involved.
That’s right: in March 1985 – just a few months after Jonelle disappeared – Ronald Reagan made an appeal to journalists nationwide. The president implored the media to do its part to help locate missing kids, while he also hoped that publications would start printing photos of the children who had vanished from their circulation areas.
At one point in his speech, Reagan even mentioned Jonelle. He said, “Well, over a million American children disappear from their homes or neighborhoods every year causing, as we can all understand, heartbreaking anguish… For example, I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado, who would have celebrated a happy 13th birthday with her family just last month. But five days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home.”
Heartbreakingly, though, the president’s plea wouldn’t spark any leads, nor would a $5,000 reward for any information on Jonelle’s kidnapper. In lieu of answers, then, volunteers continued to look for the girl. On what would have been her 13th birthday, hundreds combed more than 4,000 square miles of land in Weld County. There was still hope, it seemed.
But once again the searchers found nothing, and Jonelle’s family continued to suffer. And her father, Jim, would try to verbalize what it felt like to have a missing daughter. He told The Denver Post, “It’s not a death. Death is final – a closure you can put behind you. But this is constant, it’s unique [and] you can’t work through this.” In May 1985, though, it looked as though there might be a potentially huge break in the case.
At that time, a farmer made a gruesome discovery on his land in Weld County’s southwestern pocket. Disturbingly, he had found a piece of a person’s scalp – a chunk of skin with hair still attached. And the Matthews family had to identify the item in question, too. Had Jonelle somehow been attacked?
The Matthews were able to rest a little easier, however, when they realized that Jonelle had different colored hair to that fixed to the scalp. At the time, Gloria said, “I wasn’t really prepared emotionally to look at the scalp, but it was a job that had to be done. I felt a great sense of relief when I realized it wasn’t Jonelle.”
Yet the family still feared that they wouldn’t find Jonelle alive, and that possibility grew stronger as time went on. Almost a year after the 12-year-old’s disappearance, then, the Matthews promoted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children alongside a food initiative. Dole Foods planned to reach 43 million U.S. citizens by featuring the images of those missing on their packaging.
But in December 1985, Jonelle’s family decided that it was time to let go of the Christmas presents they’d saved. They donated the gifts, then, and shared their grim outlook with the public. That month, you see, Gloria admitted to a reporter that her youngest daughter may have died. Worse still, the thought of Jonelle having being kidnapped and tortured had left her parents distraught.
And such a horrifying scenario was a possibility considering the number of tips that had come in from people who thought they had spotted Jonelle. Someone phoned police, for instance, to tell the cops that they reckoned they had seen her in Aurora. That girl, the witness said, had come into an area salon wearing a Harley-Davidson-branded leather jacket.
But sadly none of these tips came to fruition. Instead, Jonelle’s case went cold for a decade. And on the tenth anniversary of the girl’s disappearance in 1994, the Matthews therefore made a step toward closure. Regrettably, as Jonelle had been gone for so long, Jim and Gloria had their daughter declared legally dead.
Still, the family understandably wanted to know what had actually happened to Jonelle. For more than three decades, then, they may have held their breath when police found unidentified remains that could be the 12-year-old’s. And in July 2019 a new piece of potential evidence would actually come to light – although it wasn’t good news.
That month, construction workers gathered to dig a pipeline through a rural area that sits on Greeley’s southeastern side. And as Jennifer later told the Associated Press, she considers what happened next to be “a miracle.” As the team moved the earth, they uncovered a set of human remains – ones that DNA evidence later proved had once belonged to Jonelle. The mystery of the 12-year-old’s whereabouts was finally over, and now she could come home to rest at last.
Yet a slight change in the location of the pipe would have left Jonelle’s body undiscovered. Jennifer explained, “If it would have been dug one foot to the left or to the right, she would not have been found.” But while the pipeline dig left the Matthews with some resolution, the harrowing find posed new questions, too.
You see, investigators didn’t just match the remains to Jonelle’s DNA; upon finding her body, they could also confirm that her cause of death hadn’t been a natural one. Tragically, it appeared then that the schoolgirl had been murdered after her disappearance in December 1984. And this new information would give Jennifer a newfound focus.
As Jennifer went on to tell the Associated Press, “Somebody is responsible for doing this to her.” And Jonelle’s sister hoped that investigators could use modern technology – namely DNA testing – to link someone to the crime. “This is meant to happen,” Jennifer added. “And if there’s any DNA… it’s showtime.”
Such an outcome would likely be of great consolation to the Greeley Police Department after years of heartbreak over Jonelle’s case. In 2018 – the 34th anniversary of her disappearance – officers had even spoken about how they planned to finally unearth the truth about what had happened to the pre-teen. And following the 2019 emergence of Jonelle’s remains, the authorities naturally received a big lead.
“Given the significant recent advances in forensic and scientific testing methods, Greeley Police will be examining every possible forensic option available to us,” a 2018 statement from the department read. And upon the new break in 2019, the local officers admitted that they felt relief in finding at least some answers in Jonelle’s case.
In some ways, however, the story has just begun. Finding Jonelle’s killer will be the next step, and such an investigation could be tough. But police have plenty of motivation to solve the case once and for all. In a 2019 statement announcing the discovery of the girl’s remains, law enforcement said, “This case has weighed on the hearts of the Greeley Police Department, the family and the entire city.”
In the meantime, the Matthews have gotten some of the closure they need. And while Jennifer has since moved to Washington and Jim and Gloria have retired to Costa Rica, they all came back to Greeley to put Jonelle to rest in the place she called home. The family have also planned a celebration of their daughter and sister’s life – a fitting tribute to the vivacious 12-year-old.