Forty years after 21-year-old Helene Pruszynski was kidnapped, raped and stabbed on her way home from an Englewood bus stop, the man who killed her has been sentenced to life in prison.
Douglas County Judge Theresa Slade sentenced James Curtis Clanton, 63, during an emotional, nearly three-hour hearing Wednesday in which more than a dozen people testified about the lasting impact of the killing over the past four decades.
“It never got any easier,” Janet Johnson, Pruszynski’s sister, told the judge through tears, describing her sister as warm, kind, bright and friendly. Pruszynski’s murder, on Jan. 16, 1980, devastated the family forever, Johnson said.
“It was as if someone had reached in and torn our hearts out,” Johnson said, describing how she’d cry herself to sleep at night, wondering how her parents, who have since died, were coping with their grief.
Pruszynski moved to Colorado weeks before she was killed in order to work as an intern at KHOW radio in Denver and pursue a career in journalism. She’d ride the bus to and from work, and walk a few blocks home to relatives each evening.
She never made it home on that January night in 1980, and her body was found the next day, dumped in a field. She’d been stabbed nine times in the back.
Her friend and housemate, Kitsey Snow, in court on Wednesday read entries from a journal she kept at the time, chronicling her and the family’s growing dread after Pruszynski failed to return home after work.
At 11 p.m. on Jan. 16 she wrote: “This has been the longest and worst day of my life. I am writing because I don’t know what else to do… we waited for Helene to come home, and waited.”
At 1 a.m. on Jan. 17: “Still nothing… Will this night ever end?”
At 3 a.m.: “We are trying to decide when to call her mom and dad… We know something is very wrong. I think we should call them. If it was my daughter, I’d want to know.”
And then at 1:30 p.m., when authorities arrived to say they’d found Helene’s body: “I couldn’t cry, just shake. I couldn’t stop shaking.”
The case went cold until 2017, when detectives began using DNA from the crime scene in Castle Pines and genealogy databases to narrow the search for a suspect, eventually closing in on Clanton, who was arrested in December.
Detectives found the man living in Florida and secretly collected Clanton’s DNA from a used beer mug. That DNA matched DNA collected from the crime scene. Clanton pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in February.
In an interview with detectives, he admitted to the killing, telling them he abducted Pruszynski at knifepoint, intending to rape her, then bound her hands behind her back and drove her to the field where her body was found.
“Mr. Clanton describes her as staying ‘as friendly as she could,’ asking him not to hurt her,” senior deputy district attorney Chris Wilcox told the court Wednesday. Clanton instructed Pruszynski to get on her knees, telling her she could walk home after he left, even as he prepared to kill her.
Clanton’s attorney, Daniel Cunny, said his client’s remorse for the killing has grown over the years, particularly after he became a father, and that he pleaded guilty to the crime in order to offer Pruszynski’s family some closure.
Slade imposed a life sentence with the possibility of parole, as was agreed to when Clanton pleaded guilty. During sentencing, she urged Clanton to try to build on his expressed remorse to live a better life.
“There was a poem that Helene wrote that was read by one of her friends, and it said, ‘Let us live today with every hopeful promise of tomorrow,’ ” Slade said during the sentencing. “And Mr. Clanton, you get to keep having that. How you face that is up to you.”
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