Helene Pruszynski was kidnapped, raped and murdered on January 16, 1980, and her case went cold for nearly 40 years until DNA developments allowed law enforcement to identify and arrest James Clanton. On July 1, 2020, Clanton was sentenced to life in prison for her murder. NBC’s Dateline explores the murder of 21-year-old Pruszynski and the multi-decade search by authorities and Pruszynski’s family to find her killer.
At the sentencing hearing, Pruszynski’s sister Janet Johnson described her sister as friendly, intelligent and kind. “It never got any easier,” Johnson said. “It was as if someone had reached in and torn our hearts out,” she explained how the decades of not knowing who was responsible for her sister’s death had affected the family.
Pruszynski Was Kidnapped as She Walked Home From a Bus Stop in Denver & Her Body Was Found the Next Day
Pruszynski had just moved to Colorado from Massachusetts a few weeks before she died. The young woman was interested in journalism and was staying with relatives, taking the bus to and from work every day. The bus stop was only a few blocks away from her home, but on January 16, 1980, she never made it home from work, the Denver Post reported.
Pruszynski’s friend and housemate, Kitsey Snow, spoke at Clanton’s sentencing hearing 40 years later and read her journal entries from that night, transcribed by the Denver Post. At 11 p.m., she’d written about how worried she and the family were: “This has been the longest and worst day of my life. I am writing because I don’t know what else to do… we waited for Helene to come home, and waited.” Two hours later, she added, “Still nothing… Will this night ever end?”
At 3 a.m., she wrote, “We are trying to decide when to call her mom and dad… We know something is very wrong. I think we should call them. If it was my daughter, I’d want to know.” The day after she went missing, Kruszynski’s body was found in a field. The promising 21-year-old intern had been stabbed nine times in the back, the Post wrote.
The Case Was Cold Until 2017 When Detectives Used DNA From the Crime Scene to Search Genealogy Websites
Pruszynski’s family wouldn’t have any answers until decades later. In 2017, detectives used DNA collected from the crime scene to search genealogy websites for a suspect or relatives of a suspect. They eventually narrowed results down to James Curtis Clanton, previously known as Curtis Allen White, a truck driver who was living in Florida where he’d changed his name two years after Pruszynski’s murder, 9News reported. Investigators collected his DNA from a beer glass and found that it matched the crime scene DNA. Clanton was arrested in December 2019 and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in February 2020, according to CBS Boston.
Before Pruszynski’s murder, Clanton had served about four years in an Arkansas prison for rape and was out on parole. He had been given permission to live with a former counselor in the Denver suburb where Pruszynski was eventually killed, the outlet reported.
On Wednesday, July 1, the 63-year-old Clanton was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Although he was accused of raping Pruszynski, Clanton was not charged with sexual assault due to an expired statute of limitations, Wicked Local reported.
DNA & Genealogy are incredible in crime fighting, but it still takes dedicated Detectives to bring it all together. Very proud of the @dcsheriff staff who brought a 40-year murder mystery full circle in just a few weeks. Truly amazing! #JusticeForHelene pic.twitter.com/RUHgKa11WK
— Chief Steve Johnson (@sjohnsondcso) December 16, 2019