40 Years After Colorado Student Is Murdered on Way Home From Internship, Has Her Killer Finally Been Caught?

Helene Pruszynski
Douglas County Sheriff's Office

Helene Pruszynski, 21, was interning at a Colorado radio station when she was found dead in a field.

Nearly four decades after 21-year-old journalism student Helene Pruszynski was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered on her way home from her internship at a Colorado radio station, her sister is hoping justice finally has the chance to be served. 

"I want people to know what a special person Helene was. My sister was my best friend. She was a loving daughter, sister, aunt and friend. Helene was on track to do great things, she had a bright future ahead of her," her sister, Janet Johnson, now 70, said in a statement. "There has not been a day that goes by that we haven't missed her. The detectives and everyone else who helped to make this day happen are my heroes. I look forward to justice being served." 

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock announced that James Curtis Clanton, 62, had been arrested in the cold-case killing of Pruszynski during a press conference Monday. Clanton, who at the time was known as Curtis White, had just moved from Arkansas and working as a landscaper in Colorado at the time of the killing, authorities said. Now a truck driver, he was arrested in Florida. 

Pruszynski left the small Massachusetts town where she was attending college to intern at Colorado's KHOW radio, Spurlock said. She had been there just two weeks when, on Jan. 16, 1980, she "was abducted at some time coming home from work, raped and murdered in Douglas County and left," Spurlock said.

Her body was found stabbed, partially naked and with her hands tied behind her back, according to the affidavit in the case. During the weeks before Pruszynski disappeared, several sexual assaults had been reported, according to the affidavit.

"This is a young girl who was just starting her life, who came to Colorado to have an opportunity to make a difference. She wanted to be in journalism, she wanted to be part of a bigger story," Spurlock said of Pruszynski, adding that everyone who knew her said she was a "wonderful, decent, nice young lady." 

The case has spanned Spurlock's entire career; he started with the department just after Pruszynski's murder and has worked there ever since. Solving this cold case and helping Pruszynski's family get justice was crucial, he said. 

Investigators used DNA from semen collected at the crime scene in 1980 and information from modern genetic genealogy companies and websites to build a family tree of potential suspects, according to the affidavit. 

Police then collected DNA samples from potential suspects in November, obtaining Clanton's sample from a beer glass he had been drinking from, according to the affidavit. Authorities say it was a match.  

Clanton was arrested in Florida and is now in jail in Colorado. District Attorney General George Brauchler said Clanton has been charged with felony murder predicated on an underlying crime of robbery, felony murder predicated on an underlying crime of kidnapping and felony murder predicated on an underlying crime of sexual assault, as well as an additional kidnapping charge. It is not clear if he has a lawyer.

"It was a combination of DNA existing, technology that was available but then the dogged police work that was done," Brauchler said during Monday's press conference. "That helped put the pieces together to find that missing piece of evidence to tie it all together."

The emotions of Pruszynski's sister, Janet Johnson, now 70, were palpable when police called her to tell her about the arrest, Spurlock said. Their brother, Chester, and grandmother, Julia, have since died, and Johnson is the only surviving member of her immediate family.

"That's her life. Because it has taken so long, so many people have gone and don't get to have the opportunity to hear that we've made an arrest," Spurlock said. 

Clanton is due to appear in court on Feb. 21. Authorities said they are also looking into the sexual assaults that happened in the area at the time and whether Clanton might have been involved.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Department is urging anyone with information to contact them at (303) 660-7505.