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Helene Pruszynski was raped and murdered on Jan. 16, 1980, by James Clanton

By Harriet Sokmensuer
April 07, 2021 01:10 PM
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helene Pruszynski case

For decades, the family and friends of 21-year-old Helene Pruszynski searched for answers after her brutal rape and murder in 1980.

Finally, in December 2019, their prayers were answered when truck-driver James Clanton was arrested.

Pruszynski, an aspiring journalist and a junior at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, was in Denver to intern at a local radio station while staying with relatives. On Jan. 16, 1980, Clanton kidnapped Pruszynski as she walked home from her bus stop after work.

The next day, Pruszynski's body was found in a field. Her hands had been tied behind her, and she had been raped and stabbed multiple times in the back. Investigators collected evidence from both her body and clothing, but it was before the age of advanced DNA analysis, and Pruszynski's case subsequently went cold.

The case is explored in the April 19 episode of People Magazine Investigates: Blood Ties, airing Monday at 10 ET/9 CT on Investigation Discovery and streaming on discovery+.

For more on Helene Pruszynski's murder and her family's quest for justicesubscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

helene Pruszynski case
Credit: AP/Shutterstock

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That all changed in 2017, when Douglas County investigators were able to upload the DNA evidence into genealogy databases, including GEDmatch.com, and identify several individuals who were distantly related to the killer.

After two years, investigators identified Clanton, who had lived in Colorado at the time of Helene's murder under the name Curtis White, as the killer and made an arrest.

"We had our traditional techniques that we used, and we couldn't get anywhere with those," says Shannon Jensen, a cold-case detective with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. "This new tool gave us the opportunity to reopen the case and identify a suspect. It's been a remarkable tool for detectives to utilize."

In July, Clanton was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to Pruszynski's rape and murder.

"I feel closure for all of us," Pruszynski's best friend, Midje Theulen, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "Thank God Helene can finally rest in peace."

For more on how Helene Pruszynski's murder was solved, watch the episode of People Magazine Investigates: Blood Ties, airing April 19 at 10 ET/9 CT on Investigation Discovery and streaming on discovery+.