Inside a dimly lit dive bar in the small Florida city of Lake Butler, a detective watched as James Curtis Clanton ordered bottles of beer and poured them, one by one, into a mug to sip. He watched as Clanton announced that he was done drinking for the morning and a bartender collected the mug. Then, he plucked it as evidence.
Within days, authorities would announce that the beer mug linked the grizzled truck driver to a brutal rape and murder that had happened almost 40 years earlier and more than 1,500 miles away.
Law enforcement officials in Douglas County, Colo., tried on and off for decades to solve the killing of Helene Pruszynski, a 21-year-old Wheaton College student and aspiring journalist who was kidnapped on her way home from her internship at a Denver radio station. In the years after her body was found in a remote field in January 1980, they made a sketch from a description a victim provided under hypnosis, eliminated suspects including two men who separately confessed to the crime and tracked down owners of the type of car the assailant was believed to be driving.
The case kept going cold — until, officials said, Clanton’s DNA from the mug matched the semen on Pruszynski’s coat. Detectives were able to identify the 62-year-old man, who had served prison time for rape, after they ruled out other relatives by using online genealogy databases.
It was the latest win for a new type of DNA testing that has raised privacy concerns but also has provided new leads in long-dormant cases across the country. In the most famous such case, genetic information from publicly accessible databases helped identify the man believed to be the Golden State Killer, whose string of violent crimes in California in the 1970s and 1980s terrified residents and perplexed police. And it was key to identifying Clanton, whose arrest Douglas County authorities announced Monday.
“Cases like this give me hope for the future,” District Attorney George Brauchler said during a news conference. “As we continue to make these technological advances, there are crimes yet unsolved today that I have great optimism, because of case like this, that we’re going to end up solving. And I think the public ought to feel good about that, and I think murderers ought to be scared to death of it.”
Clanton, previously known as Curtis Allen White, had been sentenced to 30 years behind bars in Arkansas after pleading guilty to first-degree rape in 1975. In that case, authorities said, he entered a woman’s home on the pretext of using her phone, then forced her into her bedroom at knife point and assaulted her.
But he served just four years before getting out on parole. Clanton, who had a troubled upbringing, was allowed to leave prison after his former counselor at an Arkansas children’s home invited him to live with his family. The former counselor at Southern Christian Home had called Clanton in prison and offered to help him get on his feet.
“I want to be paroled because I have people that care about me now and I have adjusted myself," Clanton said in a parole hearing, according to court records.
He got his wish on March 6, 1979. The sex offender registration law was almost 20 years away from being enacted in Arkansas. CODIS, the FBI’s national DNA database, did not exist.
His prison time behind him, Clanton moved into the counselor’s house in Littleton, Colo. A year later, he relocated to an address in Englewood — the same city that would become home to Pruszynski several months later.
Described by Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock as “just a wonderful, decent, nice, young lady,” Pruszynski was a senior in college when she moved from Massachusetts to Colorado for an internship at KHOW. She lived with an aunt in Englewood, according to court records, taking the bus to and from work. On Jan. 16, 1980, the always-punctual Pruszynski hadn’t arrived home by 10:30 p.m. Her aunt called the police.
The next morning, a passerby spotted Pruszynski’s body in a field in Douglas County, south of Denver and Englewood. She was undressed from the waist down, her hands bound at her back. She had been stabbed in the back nine times, court records say, causing her lungs to collapse.
Pruszynski was killed just two weeks after arriving in Colorado.
“This is a young girl who was just starting her life,” Spurlock said. “She wanted to be in journalism. She wanted to be part of a bigger story.”
In the years after Pruszynski’s death, as investigators tried and failed to find her killer, Clanton worked at landscaping and vacuum companies, married at least twice and eventually made his way to the Sunshine State, records show. His first marriage was to an old girlfriend from Arkansas whom he wed in 1980. She left him after 30 days. By 1982, he had bounced to Florida, where he changed his name, got married and divorced a second time and was arrested on a domestic violence charge in 1998.
He was not on Douglas County authorities’ radar as they revisited the Pruszynski case in 1997, 2013 and 2017.
In 2018, they decided to give forensic genealogy a try. A genealogist with a company called Parabon began working with the sheriff’s office, using the DNA profile collected at the crime scene to search genetic databases for potential suspects. That process identified several “potential distant relatives,” according to the court records.
For months, Detective Shannon Jensen worked through a family tree, eliminating possible suspects through factors including age, probability tools and, in the case of a man who was in Colorado at the time of the murder, DNA analysis.
She zeroed in on two sons of a woman who had used six different surnames in her lifetime and at one time lived with her husband and children in Salt Lake City. By talking to relatives, Jensen learned the family had splintered after the woman “had a nervous breakdown” and the boys were sent to live with an uncle. She later learned their names. One was Curtis Allen White, now known as James Curtis Clanton, who bore a striking resemblance to the suspect sketch created so many years earlier.
“I would say the technology was an undeniable part of this case,” Brauchler said. "But I don’t want the public to think we just came up with this new scientific method and, absent the hard work of human beings actually doing old-school police work and digging around, that this would have just solved itself.”
Douglas County Sheriff’s Office detectives Tim Vienot and Troy Crosswhite spent the week of Thanksgiving following Clanton around Lake Butler before working with local officials to obtain the beer mug that yielded his DNA. On Dec. 4, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation issued a report saying that analysis had matched the sample from the mug to the one from the crime scene.
Clanton was arrested as he got out of his truck and charged with first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping. He was extradited from Florida to Colorado over the weekend and arraigned on Monday. It was not immediately clear whether he had an attorney. His next court appearance is set for February.
Officials called the long-awaited break in the case bittersweet, noting that it had come too late for much of Pruszynski’s family.
“Because it has taken so long, so many people have gone and don’t get to have the opportunity to hear this, that we’ve made an arrest,” Spurlock said.
Images of Helene Pruszynski, who was killed in January of 1980. (Douglas County Sheriff's Office/Youtube)
Images of Helene Pruszynski, who was killed in January of 1980. (Douglas County Sheriff's Office/Youtube)
Authorities shared the news with the sole remaining member of Pruszynski’s immediate family: her older sister, Janet Johnson, who is 70 years old. Brauchler said he could hear in her voice that “in this case, the emotions are as raw in some ways as they were 40 years ago.”
In a statement released through the sheriff’s office, Johnson said she wanted people to know “what a special person Helene was.” She called her younger sister her best friend and a loving daughter, sister, aunt and friend who had been “on track to do great things.”
“There has not been a day that goes by that we haven’t missed her,” Johnson said. “The detectives and everyone else who helped to make this day happen are my heroes.”