Jonelle Matthews discovery provides closure for family, but new chapter is only just begun
GREELEY – Late last month, Jim and Gloria Matthews were preparing to embark on the next chapter of their lives.
After enjoying almost seven years of retirement overseas in San Isidro de El General, Costa Rica, Jim and Gloria decided it was time to return home to the United States — to the Pacific Northwest — to be closer to their daughter, Jennifer Mogensen, in Washington state.
The night of Wednesday, July 24, three days before they planned to formally place their house on the market, Jim and Gloria received a phone call from Det. Robert Cash with the Greeley Police Department.
After more than 34 years of waiting, wondering, hoping and praying, the remains of their daughter, Jonelle Matthews, had been discovered by oilfield workers digging a pipeline about 18 miles southeast of Greeley.
“To be perfectly frank, and I think everyone would agree, we were totally stunned,” Jim said last week during an interview with the Greeley Tribune. “As soon as we got the news, we just dropped everything and got here as quick as we could.”
Jim and Gloria landed at Denver International Airport a little more than two weeks ago. Jennifer arrived days later.
Since their arrival, the Matthews family has been busy speaking with local police and planning a proper sendoff for their daughter, all while also balancing near constant interview requests from media outlets throughout the country.
The Tribune sat down with Jim, Gloria and Jennifer on Aug. 9 to talk about the discovery, the investigation, the regrets they still hold onto three decades later and how Jonelle, who was adopted, came into their lives.
The ideal family
Anybody who has ever talked about having children has a picture in their minds of their ideal family.
For a Gloria Matthews, her vision of the perfect family included more than one child. She wanted siblings who could grow together, learn from one another and love each other. But after Jennifer arrived in September 1968, Jim and Gloria had difficulty conceiving a second child.
“We eventually decided there are so many children who need to be adopted; let’s adopt,” Gloria said.
The Matthews were living in Camarillo, Calif., at the time, about an hour north of Los Angeles. They began to explore opportunities to adopt with the Children’s Home Society of California, which had an office in nearby Santa Barbara.
As they were going through the adoption process, Jim, a burgeoning lifelong educator, received an opportunity to teach overseas in Beirut. The Children’s Home Society accelerated their application process and by March 1972, six weeks after her birth, Jonelle became a member of the Matthews family.
“In those days, adoption agencies matched children to the parents,” Gloria said. “Jenn had light hair like Jim and Jonelle had dark hair like me, so she looked like she was just part of the family, which was important to adoption agencies at the time.”
The Matthews would learn Jonelle’s personality also gelled with the rest of the family, particularly with her adopted mother. While Jim and Jennifer tend to be the calm, cool and collected ones, Jonelle was a little more emotional like Gloria, and she had a flare for the dramatic in both good and bad ways.
Jonelle was spunky, Jennifer remembers, and had no problem giving people a piece of her mind. She also loved the performing arts, singing in the choir in school and at church and auditioning for school plays. She sang in a Christmas concert the night she went missing.
After teaching three years in Beirut, Jim Matthews and the rest of the family returned to California. In 1978, Jim accepted a job as the director of development at Dayspring Christian Academy and relocated his family to Greeley.
Six years later, on Dec. 20, 1984, 12-year-old Jonelle sang in a Christmas concert with the Franklin Middle School Honor Choir at IntraWest Bank in Greeley. She was last seen about 8 p.m. that night when she was dropped off at her home at 320 43rd Ave. Court by a friend and her friend’s father.
Jonelle walked into an empty house. Gloria was at Stapleton International Airport in Denver waiting to board a flight to Los Angeles. Gloria hadn’t seen her family in two years and wanted to surprise them for Christmas.
Jim and Jennifer were at Greeley Central High School where Jennifer, a junior at the time, was playing in a basketball game. Jim drove himself home after the game, arriving right at 9:30 p.m., an hour and a half after Jonelle.
“I knew exactly when I got home because I was listening to the radio and the 9:30 news show just started,” Jim said. “I walked into the house and said, ‘Hi, Jonelle,’ but I didn’t get an answer.”
The Matthews home was a bi-level. Jim walked downstairs where he found the TV on in the living room. Jonelle’s shoes and favorite pillow were on the floor next to a quartz heater.
He decided to quickly wrap a Christmas present for one of his janitors at Platte Valley Elementary. About 10 minutes later, he walked through the house looking for Jonelle, but she was nowhere to be found. The only other sign she had been there was a note by the telephone saying one of Jim’s teachers called and needed a substitute the following day.
About 10 p.m., Jennifer walked through the door. Jim asked her if she knew where Jonelle was, but Jennifer had no idea.
“The girls were always really good about leaving notes whenever their plans changed,” Jim said. “That’s when I started thinking something wasn’t right.”
Jim decided to make a phone call, but it wasn’t to Greeley police. Instead he called his pastor, James Christy.
“At that point, I could’ve called the police, but I called my pastor, who was about my best friend at the time,” Jim said. “I told him what was going on and asked him what he thought I should do.
“He said, ‘Jim, I think you ought to call the police.’ ”
Several uniformed and plain-clothed officers arrived about 15-20 minutes later.
“That’s when it all started,” Jim said.
Gloria Matthews had no idea what was happening at home until several hours after the investigation started.
It was 10 degrees that night and like many others, Gloria’s flight out of Denver was delayed. She didn’t land in Los Angeles until after midnight and didn’t arrive at her family’s house until 1 a.m.
“I called Jim to let him know I made it safely and all he said was, ‘Glo, I don’t know how to tell you this. We can’t find Jonelle,” Gloria said. “My stomach just sank. I knew something was wrong.”
Jonelle was sick the two days leading up to Dec. 20, 1984, which was a Thursday. Christmas vacation was set to begin after school the next day.
Despite being so ill, Jonelle insisted on going to school. She had cross-stitched gifts she wanted to give to her friends before the holiday break and she didn’t want to miss the Christmas concert that night.
She also wanted to go to Jennifer’s basketball game, Gloria said, but that’s where she and Jim drew the line.
“I told her, ‘No. Why don’t you just go home? You’ve been sick; you should rest up and get warm,’” Gloria said. “That’s been the one regrettable thing.”
Looking back at it 34 years later, Gloria wishes she would’ve had Jim pick Jonelle up from the Christmas concert and take her to Greeley Central High School for Jennifer’s basketball game.
“At the time it wasn’t an issue because her health was more important than a basketball game,” Jim said. “But you look back and say to yourself, ‘I wish I would have done this or would have done that.’”
Suspect No. 1
Greeley police and local FBI agents immediately zeroed in on Jim Matthews as the primary suspect in Jonelle’s disappearance. So much so the following morning, when it was time for Jennifer to go to school, police dropped her off at Greeley Central.
“Being a suspect early on, I knew what they were doing and I respected it,” Jim said of the early phase of the investigation. “A lot of times it is a parent, whether it’s a custodial situation or worse, so for many months after it happened I was number one.”
Jim coped with the pressure of being constantly scrutinized by law enforcement by telling himself they were just doing their jobs. In hindsight, he said his coping skills were probably too convincing.
“I was calm about the whole thing, which must have been a red flag,” Jim said. “But the way I saw it was I’m going to cooperate because I want my daughter back.”
Jim was at the top of the suspect list for more than six months. During that time, he took a polygraph test with FBI agents. Jim’s patience finally wore thin when about a month after that, Greeley police called him asking him to take another lie detector test at the department.
“That’s when I finally got mad,” Jim said. “I raised my voice and said something like, ‘Don’t you guys get it?’ It’s like they were waiting for me to do that and they backed off.”
Glimmer of hope
About the same time Jim Matthews was growing weary of being a suspect in his own daughter’s disappearance, Gloria was having regular conversations with God.
She remembered a particularly dark moment about six months into the investigation when she was driving on 35th Avenue to work. As she drove, Gloria prayed for her daughter and for the detectives investigating the case.
“I always ended my prayers with, ‘Lord, you know that we’re going to give you all the honor and the glory if we find Jonelle,’ ” Gloria said. “The next instant, he’s asking me, ‘Will you give me all of the honor and the glory if you never find her?’
“That hit me so hard. I started balling right there on 35th Avenue and 10th Street. At that time, you’re not ready to give it up. It’s still so close.”
As the months stretched into years, Gloria said her prayers changed. She prayed Jonelle, wherever she might be, wasn’t suffering.
“As the years go by, you hope she’s not hurt or that something terrible has happened to her,” Gloria said. “You hold onto that glimmer of hope. It’s never left.”
Jim, on the other hand, made peace with the possibility he might never know what happened to his daughter.
“I was resolved to the fact that we would never find her,” Jim said. “It just got to that point.
“That’s what makes her discovery all the more miraculous. If they were digging five feet to one side or the other, they never would have found her. That’s a miracle.”
A new prayer
Although the discovery of Jonelle’s remains has provided a sense of closure — giving the Matthews family an opportunity to finally lay her body to rest — Jennifer Mogensen said a new chapter is only just begun.
The Greeley Police Department is no longer investigating a child abduction case, but a homicide.
“Because of our faith, we feel all will be revealed whether that’s here or in heaven,” Jennifer said. “Our prayer now is that the police are able to find whoever is responsible and that they’re still alive and cooperative, so we can get even more closure.”
Jim and Gloria are also hopeful police are able to identify a suspect, especially if it means getting a killer off the streets and possibly providing closure for other victims. Ironically, Jim said the last thing investigators asked him several weeks ago when he was last interviewed by Greeley police was what he wanted to see happen to the person who killed his daughter.
“We have a justice system in this country, and if they find somebody they want to take to trial and they have the evidence, then a jury is going to decide whether they are guilty or not guilty,” Jim said. “We do not have a feeling of revenge. We’ve never thought that way. We have a justice system, and I think it works.
“And it will take care of that.”