By M.P. Pellicer | Stranger Than Fiction Stories
In January 1980, Helene Pruszynski, 21, a young news intern was found dead in a field in ranch lands off Daniels Park Road in Englewood, Colorado. Her murder would go unsolved for close to four decades.
She was a senior at Wheaton College, and had started working at the radio station KHOW a little over 2 weeks before.
The coroner determined she died of multiple stab wounds to the back, and she was sexually assaulted several times. Her hands were bound behind her back, and she was naked from the waist down.
Helene would normally take a bus to her home in Englewood, and from there walk to her uncle and aunt's home where she was staying. Police suspected this is where the killer abducted her.
Investigators believed there was link between Purszynski's murder and two other slayings in the Denver metropolitan area, but it would be many years before they could connect the dots as to who the perpetrator was.
The police said the crime resembled one in 1968, and the other in 1970. Three weeks before Helen's murder a woman was raped in the same area. Another woman reported that a man attempted to grab her as she was getting off the bus.
In May, 1994 authorities were looking at Kenyon Battles Tolerton as a suspect.
Police believed he was responsible for the death of Cissy Foster, 14, whose partially clad body was found in September 1993, in a remote area of Denver. Like Purszynski, she had been stabbed various times and raped.
In 1976, he tried to abduct Janelle Shepard from a mall's parking lot by hiding in the back seat of her car. Only an intervention by a good Samaritan saved Shepard, and he was arrested. It was believed she was his only victim to survive.
Tolerton was a suspect in the murder of Holly Andrews, 16, who disappeared on December 26, 1976, after leaving her mother's home in Littleton. Her body was found the next day in Bakersfield, Colorado. He was suspected in other stabbing death of teenage girls in Colorado.
In 1980, Donna Waugh's half-clad body was found in a field in Arapahoe County. It was already decomposing She lived in an apartment across an alley from where Tolerton lived.
He became a suspect and was charged with first degree murder for the rape and strangulation of the 22-year-old waitress. He pled guilty to second-degree murder in 1981. The prosecutors were seeking the death penalty if it was taken to trial. He was on probation for a 1976 abduction of Janelle Shepard.
Prior to this Tolerton had been sentenced to 10 years in Leavenworth federal prison for a federal conviction on two gun possession charges. The D.A. sought the maximum 24-year sentence saying that based on Tolerton's criminal history he was dangerous. Judge Ken Stuart said there was no absolute proof of Tolerton's guilt and sentenced him only with 10 years. He was paroled in 1991. Within two years he killed Cissy Foster.
Police arrested him when they found a link between DNA taken from Foster's body and a blood sample taken from Tolerton when he was serving a sentence in prison in 1980.
In 1994, he was sentenced to life plus 48 years for the murder of Cissy Foster.
By 1999, authorities once more tried to match sparse DNA taken from Pruszynski's murder scene. So far tests had been inconclusive, but there was hope that with new advances, and an expanded DNA database there would be a match to her attacker.
It wasn't until 2019 that a match was made between semen taken from the crime scene to James Curtis Clanton (formerly known as Curtis Allen White) of Lake Butler, Florida. He was convicted in 1975, of raping a woman at knife point inside her Arkansas home. He forced the woman to drive him to a bus stop in Little Rock and then released her. She went to the police and he was arrested within the hour. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, with 10 years suspended sentence, and was released on parole after just four years.
It was then he killed Helene Purszynski.
At the time of his arrest he worked as a truck driver, and after being surveilled for a week, he was arrested and extradited to Colorado.
The match to Clanton was made via genetic links to family members who submitted DNA.
Then the police were tasked with getting a DNA sample from Clanton, and finally obtained it from a beer mug he was seen using at a bar.
Only Helene's sister was left alive from the immediate family to welcome the news of the arrest.
In 2020, Clanton, 63, pled guilty to the murder charge and was sentenced to life in prison. He told investigators that after a meeting with his parole officer he decided to take a woman to have sex with. He said he saw Pruszynski get off the bus, abducted her and then raped and killed her.
He was 22 at the time, and had moved to Colorado only a year before the murder. He worked as a landscaper and lived only blocks from the bus stop Pruszynski would use to get home.
Clanton looked very similar to a sketch produced in 1980 from a hypnotized witness' description to a booking photo of Clanton in 1998.
Clanton was not charged with sexual assault since the statute of limitations had expired, and there are suspicions tht he was behind a series of reported attacks in the area around that time.
A family friend of Clanton said he knew him well, and that Clanton was guarded about his past, and lied as to the reason why he had gone to prison in Arkansas. He said he got into a fist fight over a girl, kicked a man in the chest and unintentionally killed him.
This same friend said that Clanton lived a quiet life and was not known to be violent.
In 1998 and 2001, Clanton was arrested on domestic violence charges.
There was a delay in actually arresting Clanton, since the initial possible match through a genealogy website exposed a convoluted family tree. Police had to wade through 3,000 family members in order to narrow their focus. His mother used six last names over her lifetime, and had five children with two different men.
Early in his life Clanton used the name Curtis Allen White and lived with his father as an infant, but was raised by an aunt and uncle until he was 13 years old. He was a chronic runaway and ended up in foster care. He would tell authorities he didn't know who his mother was, and said his uncle was his father. He started using the name James Curtis Clanton in 1982.
Clanton's brother had a lengthy criminal history, and at some point police had to make sure he was not the one they were looking for.
As per prison records, Clanton remains incarcerated at Bent County Correctional Facility in Las Animas, Colorado. He will be eligible for parole in January 2040.
So much heartbreak could have been avoided if Clanton and Tolerton would have been sentenced appropriately and served their entire term behind bars. One wonders if whoever decided to parole either of these men ever slept soundly after this terrible decision.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer