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A trucker who was charged with sexually assaulting and killing a young journalism intern whose body was found dumped in a barren Colorado field 40 years ago has admitted to killing her.
James Curtis Clanton, 62, pleaded guilty to the 1980 slaying of 21-year-old Helene Pruszynski on Feb. 21. The woman’s body turned up in a “desolate” field four decades ago, officials said.
“Because of the unrelenting and outstanding efforts of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and United Data Connect, the resolution of a horrible sexual assault and murder in a desolate part of our county four decades ago ended within 15 minutes inside a courtroom this morning,” Douglas County District Attorney George Brauchler said in a statement obtained by Oxygen.com.
Clanton pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder after deliberation in the speedy court hearing. Prosecutors used the guilty plea as an opportunity to highlight how the threat of capital punishment played a role in bringing the case to a close.
“Coloradans should know that having the ability to consider the death penalty on this case helped lead to its resolution,” the county’s lead prosecutor added. “The legislature should think again about taking this tool away from elected prosecutors.”
Clanton will be in his early 80s by the time he’s eligible for parole.
“At his age, if you asked me to guess, I'd say I don't expect him to make parole,” Brauchler also said after court, the Highlands Ranch Herald reported.
Pruszynski’s body was discovered half-naked with her hands bound in a Colorado field more than four decades ago, the outlet reported. She had been stabbed several times.
Clanton, a former truck driver, supposedly changed his name and fled the state — eventually settling in Lake Butler, Florida — before he was tracked down by authorities and arrested last year.
“While we were prepared to go forward at trial, we are pleased that Mr. Clanton made the decision to plead guilty,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock also said in the statement following news of the trucker’s plea.
“I am very proud of all the hard work and dedication that was put into solving this case. “We sincerely hope that this brings closure one step closer for Helene’s only surviving sibling as well as the many friends she had.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Union County Sheriff’s Office, as well as United Data Connect — a forensic science computing firm — also assisted on the cold case investigation.
"It is incredible to use a forensic genetic genealogy to solve old cases like this," Mitch Morrissey, former prosecutor and co-founder of United Data Connect, told Oxygen.com.
Morrissey, who previously served as Denver County District Attorney for 13 years, said it's the third cold case investigation his company has helped solve, but noted that Pruszynski's case marks the first where a perpetrator was arrested alive. The former prosecutor said that Clanton’s mother had two boys, which wasn't previously known by investigators. This newly uncovered forensic evidence, he said, is largely led his team to the former truck driver.
"We provided their names to investigators who used DNA to exclude one son and that left Clanton," Morrisey said. "After they obtained Clanton’s DNA, it confirmed the lead that we provided."
Before her death in 1980, Pruszynski had moved from Massachusetts to Douglas County to take an internship at local radio station KHOW, a spokesperson for the district attorney confirmed with Oxygen.com.
Clanton is scheduled to be sentenced on April 10 at 2 p.m. in an 18th Judicial District courtroom, according to prosecutors. Pruszynski’s sister, Janet Johnson, is expected to address Clanton at his sentencing, the Highlands Ranch Herald also reported.
“You can't imagine the kind of relief that would bring to a victim, who I think had thought she would go to her grave not knowing who killed her sweet sister,” Brauchler, the Douglas County District Attorney, told the outlet.
The former truck driver faces a potential sentence of life in prison for Pruszynski’s slaying.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article included a reference to a “Murder Squad” podcast listener named “Jessi,” who had submitted a DNA sample to genealogy database GEDmatch and discovered she was a distant relative of Clanton. Investigators in the case subsequently clarified that the woman’s genetic match didn’t play a key role in identifying Clanton as a suspect, as the article stated. The reference has been removed.
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