Remains of 12-year-old Colorado girl missing since 1984 discovered at oil and gas site
WELD COUNTY — After 34 years, seven months and five days of searching, the Greeley Police Department announced Thursday morning bones discovered earlier this week at an oil and gas site in rural Weld County are the remains of Jonelle Matthews.
Sgt. Joe Tymkowych, spokesman for Greeley police, declined to comment about how investigators were able to confirm the identity of the remains other than to say a positive ID was made following an examination by the Weld County Coroner’s Office.
Matthews disappeared Dec. 20, 1984, after performing in a Christmas concert with the Franklin Middle School Honor Choir 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.
Matthews was 12 years old when she disappeared, said Tymkowych who confirmed about 8 a.m. Thursday the remains are of Matthews. She would be 47 today.
At 4:50 p.m. Tuesday, oilfield workers digging a pipeline about one quarter of a mile northwest of Weld County Road 49 and Weld 34 1/2 reported to law enforcement they had discovered human remains. The Weld County Sheriff’s Office, coroner’s office, Greeley police and Weld District Attorney’s Office all responded to inspect the scene Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
Matthews’ parents, Jim and Gloria, who retired to Costa Rica, have been notified of the discovery, Tymkowych said. He declined to comment further about their reaction or if they have plans to return to Greeley.
Jim for a long time was a suspect in the case, but Tymkowych declined to comment about whether or not he remains a suspect in his adopted daughter’s disappearance.
His biological daughter, Jenn Mogensen, said Thursday it’s not uncommon for family members to be considered suspects in missing persons cases, but added her father has cooperated with law enforcement since the beginning of the investigation.
Now residing in Washington state, Mogensen said it was bittersweet to hear the news her sister’s remains had been discovered.
“We’ve been surrounded by lots of love from friends and family in Greeley,” Mogensen said. “We’re grateful for the closure, but other questions have now been raised.”
Jim and Gloria are still processing the news, Mogensen said. She expects she and her parents will make a trip to Greeley in the next week or so.
Because Matthews’ family doesn’t reside in Greeley anymore, Mogensen said they haven’t yet decided if they plan to bury her remains locally. But she suspects her parents will want to host some kind of memorial service in Greeley.
“My parents have always been so appreciative of the Greeley community,” Mogensen said. “We will probably have a service there because the case did affect so many people.”
Authorities didn’t have a clear sense of how deep Matthews’ remains were when they were discovered or how long they had been there. The construction equipment workers were using moves about eight to 10 inches of material each pass, Tymkowych said.
“We don’t know how many passes they made before they discovered her,” Tymkowych said. “From what we were able to gather from the scene, it seems like she has been there a long time.”
Although Weld 49 has been a major north-south thoroughfare for decades, serving as an alternative option to traveling U.S. 85, it looked very different in 1984. Instead of a landscape dotted with oil and gas wells and other facilities for energy development, the area around Weld 49 would have comprised “acres and acres of scrub,” Tymkowych said.
“I’ve been up and down 49 a few times,” said Tymkowych, who has been with Greeley police for more than 39 years. “When I think about that area back then, I think of a lot of open land. Some of it was farmland, but a lot of it was open.”
In 1984, Weld 49 was two lanes wide and almost devoid of shoulders, said Jennifer Finch, communications director for Weld County. The area was remote with few farm houses. There were no street lights and it wasn’t highly traveled at night.
Images taken by the county GIS Department in 1973 and 2005 show the area in the vicinity of Weld 49 and Weld 34 1/2 was desolate and completely devoid of all of the oil and gas activity in the area today.
And that activity would play a big role in the discovery of Matthews’ remains.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Greeley Tribune received an anonymous message containing pictures taken at the oil and gas site. At the request of law enforcement, the Tribune did not print those pictures in a story that appeared Wednesday at GreeleyTribune.com.
And out of respect for Matthews and her family, the Tribune won’t publish the photos now nor at any time in the future. However, in the interest of keeping the public as informed as possible given the circumstances — and after discussing it with investigators — a compromise of describing the photos was reached.
The Tribune received two photos. The first is a picture of a small hole, about the circumference of a basketball hoop. Above and slightly to the left of the hole a human skull sits on the ground. To the right of the hole is what appears to be tattered red- and blue-colored clothing.
The second photo is a close-up of the lower jaw, which is separated from the rest of the skull. It was still resting inside the hole when the photos were taken. The jaw appears to have all of the teeth still intact. The teeth are outfitted with braces.
In December, on the 34th anniversary of Matthews’ disappearance, Greeley police announced it was ramping up its investigation into the three-decades old cold case. As part of that announcement, authorities released for the first time video of the Christmas concert Matthews performed in as a 7th grader at Franklin Middle School.
Matthews was wearing red- and blue-colored clothing during the concert, according to video footage. She also wore braces.
Greeley police hosted a news conference at 3 p.m. Thursday at the department, 2875 W. 10th St., but released little additional information. In a separate call to police for comment, the Tribune asked if authorities were any closer to a suspect following Tuesday’s discovery. Tymkowych said detectives are still “chasing down leads.”
“It’s a long-pursued, heavy-hearted kind of case,” Tymkowych said. “As time went on, we knew there was a possibility we wouldn’t get her back. This is possibly a piece of the puzzle that will help us to solve the case.”
Greeley native Evan Sitchler, 47, said Thursday nearly all of the air left his lungs when he heard the news police had recovered the remains of Jonelle Matthews. Now living in Denver, Sitchler said he didn’t attend Franklin Middle School with Matthews, but that didn’t prevent her case from affecting him and much of the Greeley community.
“She was exactly my age and when she disappeared, everyone was on edge,” Sitchler said. “I don’t think we ever got over it.”
The early 1980s was a strange time, Sitchler said, as it seemed stories about missing children were far too common throughout the country.
“Stories about missing kids was something you were seeing all the time in the media back then,” Sitchler said. “That was such a scary thing. We were scared all of the time for a long time after that (Matthews’ disappearance).
“I can’t even fathom what the family must be going through after all this time.”
Mike Peters, who covered cops and courts for the Tribune from 1971 until his retirement in 2011, estimates he wrote somewhere between 40-50 articles about the Matthews case during his career. But Matthews’ story affected him on a personal level more than any other.
“What hit my wife and I the hardest was that this occurred in our neighborhood and we had children about the same age,” Peters said Thursday. “I was very close to the case. I drove past their house everyday coming into work.”
Like Sitchler, Peters remembers how the entire community was crippled by fear because of the disappearance. Parents who used to let their kids walk to school started driving them. In Peters’ neighborhood, kids rarely played outside after dark.
But Peters also remembers how the community rallied in the wake of Matthews’ disappearance.
Hundreds of people volunteered to search for Matthews, walking expansive sections of the county on foot. Residents posted missing persons signs in their yard with information asking passersby to call Greeley police with any information they might have. Peters’ daughter, Vanessa, who was about Matthews’ age, stuffed missing persons flyers into envelopes that were mailed to households all over the county.
Greeley’s religious community also rallied to the cause. Led by Sunny View Church of the Nazarene, of which Matthews was an active member, 59 local churches participated in a vigil praying for the safe return of the missing child.
“There wasn’t a section of this community that wasn’t impacted by the Jonelle Mathews case,” Peters said. “When I heard she’d been found, I about fell out of my chair. I was flabbergasted. I was in shock. I never thought she would be found.”
Matthews’ missing persons case transcended Greeley and Weld County, too. In a March 7, 1985, speech to members of the National Newspaper Association, President Ronald Reagan referenced Matthews to highlight the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
A portion of that speech reads:
“I’d like to suggest one especially tragic area where your newspapers can do a great deal of good: the problem of missing children.
“Well over a million American children disappear from their homes or neighborhoods every year causing, as we can all understand, heartbreaking anguish. Parents cry out for help, many through letters to me. 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 5 days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home.
“Letters like these touch us deeply, and we’ve tried our best to help. Last June we opened the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which runs a toll-free hotline and gives other aid as well. But a President can only do so much. So, today I’d like to ask for your help.” Related stories
The case remains active as police continue to search for a suspect. Anyone with information about this case is asked to contact Greeley Det. Robert Cash at (970) 350-9601 or the Greeley police tip line at (970) 351-5100.