true crime

Student Helene Pruszynski was raped and murdered in 1980. A beer mug just led to an arrest.

Helene Pruszynski was a 21-year-old college student doing an internship at a Denver radio station when she was abducted, raped and stabbed to death. Forty years later, a man has been arrested over her murder – and it could be partly due to one of the listeners of The Murder Squad podcast.

Pruszynski was from Hamilton, Massachusetts, but was staying with her aunt and uncle in Colorado at the time of her death in January 1980. Each day, the aspiring journalist would walk six blocks from her aunt and uncle’s house to a bus stop, then catch the bus to radio station KHOW-AM.

On January 16, Pruszynski finished for the day at the radio station and headed home on the bus. She got off at the bus stop, but never arrived at her aunt and uncle’s house. At 10.30 that night, her aunt called the police.

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The following day, a passerby saw Pruszynski’s body in a field. Her hands were bound and she had been raped and stabbed in the back nine times.

Police worked tirelessly on the case. They took semen samples from Pruszynski’s coat, but were unable to make any matches. They came up with a sketch of a suspect, made after putting a witness under hypnosis. But no one was charged over the killing.

Back home in Massachusetts, Pruszynski’s parents, her brother Chet and her sister Janet Johnson were devastated. Johnson had given birth to a son just a year earlier, and she explained recently that the family carried on for the sake of the young boy.

“I think that gave us a focus, you know?” she told 9News in Colorado. “I think without that our life just would have been in shambles.”

But none of them would ever get over it.

“That emptiness in our hearts stayed forever,” she added.

Pruszynski’s friends were also devastated.

“Helene was just such a piece of heaven,” Kimberly Obremski, who was in a high school singing group with Pruszynski, told The Salem News. “She was such an All-American, intelligent, caring individual. That’s what makes it even harder. She had her whole future ahead of her.”

Over the years, police kept revisiting the case. In 1998, they used advancements in technology to create a DNA profile from the semen samples. Still, no arrest was made.

Obremski and some other old school friends were determined that Pruszysnki shouldn’t be forgotten. In 2006, a group of them flew from Massachusetts to Colorado to retrace her final steps.

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Pruszynski’s brother Chet died in 2009, at the age of 63. Her mother died in 2012, aged 89, and her father that same year, aged 94. They would never know who had killed their beloved Helene.

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In 2018, police decided to try to use forensic genealogy to solve the crime. They started searching genetic databases to find a match for the DNA profile they had.

Meanwhile, Paul Holes and Billy Jensen, the two men behind The Murder Squad podcast, were asking their listeners to upload their DNA to the GEDmatch database, in the hope that it could help solve cases.

A listener calling herself Jessi did just that, and in June 2019, she received a call from the police telling her that her DNA matched a suspect in a crime from 1980. The suspect was at the third-cousin level. Jessi got her parents involved and submitted as much family information as she could.

“I’ve always been really interested in true crime and DNA and all the advances that have been made,” she said on the podcast.

Detective Shannon Jensen worked her way through a family tree to zero in on two men, sons of a woman who had used six different surnames in her lifetime.

One of the men was James Curtis Clanton, formerly known as Curtis Allen White. In 1975, Clanton had pleaded guilty to first-degree rape, after assaulting a woman in her Arkansas home at knifepoint. He was sentenced to 30 years’ jail but released after just four years.

At the time of Pruszynski’s murder, he was living not far from her aunt and uncle in Colorado. An old mug shot of Clanton shows he bore a strong resemblance to the police sketch produced with the help of a witness.

Late last year, police travelled to Lake Butler, Florida, where Clanton was living and working as a truck driver. They followed him around, and watched him drinking at a bar. With the help of the bartender, they collected his DNA from a beer mug.

On December 4, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation announced that analysis had shown the DNA from Clanton’s beer mug matched the sample taken from Pruszynski’s coat 40 years earlier. Clanton was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping.

“Cases like this give me hope for the future,” District Attorney George Brauchler said at a press conference.

Pruszynski’s old school friends were experiencing a mix of emotions.

“A lot of us are feeling happy but almost nauseous at the same time and physically shaking with a big pit in our stomachs,” Obremski said.

As for Pruszynski’s sister Johnson, she was sad her brother and parents weren’t around to experience the day.

“It’s hard to really put into words the feelings I have, because, you know, you’re happy but it’s bittersweet,” she said. “It’s really not happiness – it’s just, a calmness, I guess, that I can feel knowing that justice will prevail.”

Feature Image: 9NEWS colorado / Union County Sheriff Dept.

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