DNA from beer mugs led to suspect's arrest

James Clanton charged with the 1980 murder of Helene Pruszynski

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/17/19

She moved to Colorado in 1980 with hopes of pursuing her career in journalism. She had "a bright future ahead of her," family said. Then, Helene Pruszynski's life ended abruptly, and shrouded in …

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DNA from beer mugs led to suspect's arrest

James Clanton charged with the 1980 murder of Helene Pruszynski

Posted

She moved to Colorado in 1980 with hopes of pursuing her career in journalism. She had "a bright future ahead of her," family said. Then, Helene Pruszynski's life ended abruptly, and shrouded in mystery.

On January 16, 1980, the 21-year-old was kidnapped, raped and discarded in a Douglas County field, suffering multiple stab wounds.

Now, the man suspected of her murder is moving through the court system.

Authorities on Dec. 11 arrested James Curtis Clanton, 62, near his home in Florida on felony charges for Pruszynski's murder. Clanton appeared in court for the first time on Dec. 16.

Earlier that morning, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler joined the team that investigated Clanton for a news conference announcing his arrest. The group of law enforcement, genealogists, and civilian volunteers found him through “dogged, old-school” police work paired with technological advancements in the world of genealogy, Brauchler said.

The sheriff's office on Twitter shared a statement from Pruszynski's closest living relative, her sister Janet Johnson, who has asked for privacy.

"I want people to know what a special person Helene was. My sister was my best friend," she said.

A break in the case

An arrest affidavit for Clanton details how investigators found him and obtained evidence needed to connect him with the crime. Extensive genealogical research conducted by detectives, includng Detective Shannon Jensen of the sheriff's office, with the help of private genealogy companies pointed them to Clanton.

Douglas County detectives traveled to Lake Butler, Florida, in November with the mission to surveil him and wait for opportunities to collect his DNA. Their opportunity came six days in when Clanton visited a bar. One of the detectives followed him inside where he watched Clanton order several beers, pouring each into a mug. With the help of the bar owner, officers obtained three mugs before they were washed, one of which they knew was Clanton's.

Testing of the mugs in Colorado confirmed Clanton's DNA was a match for the DNA collected from Pruszynski's murder scene nearly 40 years earlier, authorities say.

He now sits in the Douglas County jail without bond, facing five charges, four on suspicion of murder and one for kidnapping. Three of the murder charges are predicated on other suspected crimes, including sexual assault and robbery.

Clanton walked into the Douglas County courtroom on Dec. 16 shackled and dressed in a white and orange jumpsuit, his hair grown past his shoulders. He peered around him as he sat down, speaking briefly with Public Defender Ara Ohanian as the hearing began.

Clanton nodded his head and answered District Court Judge Theresa Slade's questions in a hushed, nearly inaudible voice, and otherwise sat calmly throughout the hearing.

Genealogy leads to suspect

Pruszynski moved to Colorado from her home in Massachusetts two weeks before her death for an internship with KHOW radio station.

When Pruszynski didn't come home as expected on Jan. 16, 1980, Pruszynski's aunt filed a missing person report with Englewood police.

"During the weeks leading up to the disappearance of Ms. Pruszynski, Englewood had experienced a series of sexual assaults in the area for which it is believed Ms. Pruszynksi disappeared," the affidavit said.

Englewood police began investigating whether her disappearance was linked to those cases.

Her body was found the next day when a Douglas County woman was driving her three children along Daniels Park Road. One of the children saw a body from the vehicle. The woman stopped a road grader operator. The man confirmed there was a woman's body in the field and called the sheriff's office.

The victim was nude from her waist down, her hands bound behind her back. Douglas County Coroner John Andrews would later identify her as Pruszynski. A forensic pathologist determined the 21-year-old had been sexually assaulted. Her attacker's semen remained on her body and clothing. She was stabbed in the back until her lungs collapsed, eventually dying of substantial blood loss.

Initial investigators identified suspects only to clear them all. Within roughly a year, the case went cold.

"The investigation laid dormant for many years after the available leads appeared to have yielded only negative results," the affidavit said.

Investigators examined the case numerous times in the years since with no major breaks. In 2017, cold case detectives began using genetic genealogy.

The investigative method allows detectives to find relatives of their suspect by searching genealogy databases. After extensive research and interviews with relatives, investigators felt confident they'd identified their suspect's mother.

Moving to Colorado

The suspect's mother used six surnames in her lifetime, according to the arrest affidavit. She had children with multiple partners, including four sons. Two of the boys were ruled out because they were young at the time of the murder. The oldest son disappeared more than 30 years later, and the family never saw him again.

That left investigators with her son Curtis White as the most likely suspect. Criminal justice records told detectives White was a chronic runaway as a child who didn't know his mother and considered his uncle his father figure.

A closer look at White revealed he'd changed his name to James Curtis Clanton around 1982. He had a lengthy criminal history, including a 1975 arrest and conviction for raping a woman at knifepoint in Arkansas. In Florida, he was arrested in 1998 on suspicion of domestic violence battery and in 2001 on suspicion of domestic violence assault.

He was released from prison on March 3, 1979 for the rape arrest and moved to Douglas County, Colorado. A former counselor of White's contacted him during his prison sentence. White said during a parole hearing his counselor wanted him to move in.

The counselor lived with his family in Littleton four blocks from where Pruszynski got off the bus every day. Parole records show White moved to Douglas County initially but relocated to a home five blocks from Pruszynski's bus stop.

He was arrested in 1981 for a parole violation but was not incarcerated at the time of Pruszynski's death, noted DCSO Detective Shannon Jensen in the affidavit.

Brauchler cautioned in the news conference that Clanton is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but he commended investigators for identifying a suspect. Pruszynski's sister said she was a loving daughter, sister, aunt and friend.

"Helene was on track to do great things," Johnson said.

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