Helene Pruszynski was only 21 years old when she was brutally raped and murdered on January 16, 1980.
An aspiring journalist, Pruszynski had moved from her small hometown in Massachusetts to Denver, Colorado to work as an intern at the news department of KHOW AM radio. She lived with her Auntie and a friend in Englewood and took the same bus from a South Broadway bus stop each night after work.
On the night of January 16, it is believed she was abducted after getting off the bus. Her Auntie knew something was wrong and called the police around 10:30 PM to report her missing.
The following day Helene’s body was found in a field in Douglas County on Daniels Park Road in Castle Pines, an area that is these days known as Highlands Ranch. Her hands were bound at the wrist behind her back and she was in a state of undress. The young woman had been raped and brutally stabbed to death. Nine of the stab wounds were across the victims back and had punctured her lungs. DNA was collected from the scene but would not aid investigators in their search until years later.
Pruszynski had only been in Denver 2 weeks before she was murdered.
A co-worker, journalist Bob Scott, who described her as “very bright with a great sense of humor and a wonderful laugh” had to identify Helene Pruszynski’s body. He admitted that he had viewed many bodies over the years in his line of work, however never the body of a friend. KHOW radio offered a reward for information leading to the killer’s arrest but received no tips.
Police questioned and canvassed locally throughout the first crucial 48 hours but were left without any information or solid leads that could point them in the direction of a suspect. All they had to go on was a sketch, the details of which were provided by an individual who under hypnosis was able to provide a description of the suspected perpetrator. The sketch depicts a Caucasian male with dark hair, light eyes and a mustache. The sketch did not lead to a suspect and the case quickly went cold. Despite repeated attempts to solve the brutal rape and murder over the years, the case would remain cold for almost 4 decades.
Pruszynski’s case was reopened in 1998 and the DNA collected from the crime scene was ran through the FBI database, however, with no matches and no new information to go on the case went cold once again. Police tried again through the 2000’s but just couldn’t seem to get a break until the DNA collected from the crime scene was entered into a public genetic genealogy database leading them to a distant relative of the suspect. Then, through grueling police work involving over 22 detectives who worked tirelessly tracking down the suspects immediate family members through good old-fashioned investigation, they finally had themselves a name: James Curtis Clanton.
Police tracked the suspect for almost two weeks and followed him to a small bar in Lake Butler, Florida where they took a beer mug that he had been drinking from to test against the DNA found at the crime scene. It was a match.
They arrested the 63-year-old truck driver without incident in December 2019 and charged him with first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping.
A look into the man’s past revealed that James Clanton had a history of violence against women. In 1975 he served time for a rape in Arkansas and despite a 30-year sentence was released on parole after serving just 4 years. As a youth Clanton had spent time in a children’s home in Arkansas where he had met a kind-hearted counselor. Believing that Clanton could be rehabilitated if given guardianship and a better home environment the counselor agreed to let the young man stay with them. James Clanton, who claimed that he had “adjusted his ways”, was discharged from the prison and sent to live with the counselor and his family in Littleton, Colorado where he would stay for a year before re-locating to Englewood.
Clanton held down a string of jobs over the years and saw himself married and divorced more than once. His first marriage in 1980 was over in one month and another of his marriages ended in a 1998 domestic battery charge.
The 1998 mugshot of the suspect closely resembles the sketch created as part of the Helene Pruszynski investigation.
Clanton has been extradited to Colorado where he awaits trial.
Almost all of Helene Pruszynski’s family passed away without ever seeing justice for their loved one, but Pruszynski’s older sister, Janet Johnson, now 70, was there to receive the phone call with the news that police finally caught up with the man responsible for her little sisters murder 39 years ago.