On Dec. 20, 1984, 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews went missing from her northern Colorado home. Police confirmed on July 25, 2019, that remains found by construction workers on July 23 are those of Jonelle.
After 34 years, her family finally has some sense of closure, but investigators are now trying to figure out how the young girl died.
Jonelle, a seventh grader, was a member of the Franklin Middle School Honor Choir and was active at the Sunny View Church of the Nazarene.
She was last seen after singing with her classmates at a Christmas recital on December 20, 1984. After she and her friends sang “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas carols, a friend’s father drove her home and dropped her off around 8:30 p.m.
According to NamUs, when her parents arrived home around 10 p.m., they found their daughter’s shoes by a chair and her stockings on the couch — but Jonelle was missing.
Months went by, but investigators weren’t able to provide many answers. Jonelle’s parents decided to reach out to then-President Ronald Reagan, who had been a huge advocate for missing children’s cases throughout the country.
About a year and a half before Jonelle’s disappearance, President Reagan declared May 25th National Missing Children’s Day in honor of Etan Patz and other unsolved missing children cases.
“Each year hundreds of thousands of American families are confronted with a unique tragedy — a missing child. While most of these children return home safely, far too many are exposed to serious danger and exploitation. Often the child’s fate is never known,” he said in 1983. “Finding and safely returning these children to their homes has become a national problem.”
“Our children are the Nation’s most valuable and most vulnerable asset. They are our link to the future, our hope for a better life. Their protection and safety must be one of our highest priorities,” he continued.
In March 1985, Reagan mentioned Jonelle’s story when he asked the National Newspaper Association to regularly publish missing children’s pictures and stories as a “mission of mercy.”
“Parents cry out for help, many through letters to me,” Reagan told them in his plea. “Letters like these touch us deeply, and we’ve tried our best to help … But a president can only do so much.”
According to the Greeley Tribune, law enforcement shared on July 25, 2019, that construction workers found human remains while digging a pipeline the Tuesday before the media briefing.
The Weld County Sheriff’s Office, coroner’s office, Greeley police and Weld District Attorney’s Office arrived on the scene to inspect the remains and were able to confirm they were that of Jonelle Matthews.
“From what we were able to gather from the scene, it seems like she has been there a long time,” Sgt. Joe Tymkowych of the Greeley Police Department said.
“My heart sank. It brought tears to my eyes,” Jonelle’s childhood friend Shelby Lobato said to CBS Denver. “I felt really bad for her family.”
Jonelle’s parents, who have retired to Costa Rica, as well as her sister, Jennifer Mogensen, have been notified of investigators’ discovery.
“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.”
Jennifer Finch, communications director for Welch County, told the Greeley Tribune that the state road near where Jonelle’s remains were found was relatively undeveloped at the time of her disappearance, which could help investigators understand what happened to the missing girl.
“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.”
Jonelle’s case, and others like it, motivated President Reagan in 1984 to found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which operates a free 24-hour hotline to help search for missing children.
“It was really noticeable that there needed to be an agency that specialized in the search for missing children,” Rebecca Kovar of NCMEC told The Western Journal in May.
While Jonelle’s case is still ongoing, the impact her case has had for millions of missing children’s cases since is unquantifiable.
As investigators continue to search for a suspect in this case, anyone with any information that could aid them is encouraged to contact the Greeley police tip line at (970) 351-5100.
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