A Florida man was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday for killing a college student from Massachusetts working as a Denver radio station intern 40 years ago, a cold case solved with the help of DNA profiles shared by relatives online.
James Curtis Clanton, a truck driver from Lake Butler, Florida, was arrested in December and pleaded guilty in February in the 1980 stabbing death of Helene Pruszynski, 21, a Wheaton College student from Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Pruszynski was described by friend Kimberly Obremski La Tourette during an emotional online sentencing hearing as “beautiful in every way.”
She and others, including Pruszynski’s sister, Janet Johnson, the only surviving member of her immediate family, mourned not having Pruszynski with them over the last four decades and regretted that she never had a chance to do things like launch a career or have her own family.
They described her as a creative young woman whose deep kindness and ready smile made everyone feel welcome and whose loss was deeply felt. So many people turned out for her funeral that some had to pray on the steps of the church.
Johnson said her late brother suffered in silence after their younger sister was killed and Johnson said often cried herself to sleep as she worried about her parents and their grief over the loss of their daughter.
Wheaton College classmate Eileen McDonough Kiley said the juxtaposition of her friend’s goodness and her brutal ending were incomprehensible.
“There is no happy ending here, just the hope that no more beautiful, innocent lives will be taken by Mr. Clanton for the rest of his life,” she said in a statement read by District Attorney George Brauchler.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Wilcox said Clanton, who was on parole for a rape in Arkansas when he killed Pruszynski, told investigators that he decided to take a woman to have sex with after he had met with his parole officer.
Wilcox said he saw Pruszynski get off a bus on her way home from KHOW-AM, drove her to a field in what is now the suburban community of Highlands Ranch and stabbed her nine times.
Clanton is also accused of raping Pruszynski but was not charged with sexual assault because the statute of limitations had passed when he was arrested.
Clanton lowered his head down as a video showed photos of Pruszynski, set to music from her college choral group. Watching on a video monitor from jail, he wiped his eyes and nose with a surgical mask.
Male DNA was recovered from the scene of the killing but Clanton was not linked to it until last year despite ongoing efforts by her friends and Douglas County investigators to keep the case alive.
In 2017, investigators turned to forensic genealogy to try to find relatives who had uploaded their DNA profiles to sites like Ancestry.com and GEDmatch.com, to trace their way back to a possible suspect.
Once their focus narrowed to Clanton, investigators traveled to Florida and got a DNA sample from him from a beer mug he was seen drinking from at a bar.
Clanton’s lawyer, Daniel Cunny, said his client was sorry and that his regret grew over the years, especially after he had a daughter, and he prayed for Pruszynski and all murder victims. Cunny said Clanton realizes that he cannot make up for what he did.
Judge Theresa Slade said she thought Clanton was sincere.
“What you do with your life from here on out is up to you,” she said.