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Murder victim's sister 'overwhelmed with emotion' after suspect identified nearly 40 years later

Helene Pruszynski, 21, was a Massachusetts college student in Colorado for an internship. She was abducted in Englewood and found dead in Douglas County.
Credit: Courtesy Janet Pruszynski Johnson

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — A day later, Janet Johnson was still absorbing the news that after nearly 40 years, police had identified and arrested a man suspected of abducting, raping and murdering her sister in a Douglas County field.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” Johnson said of getting the phone call that an arrest was at hand. “You know, joy, sadness, relief … it’s just been quite a roller coaster ride.”

Her sister, Helene Pruszynski, was a 21-year-old Massachusetts college student when she came to Colorado to work as an intern in the news department at the KHOW radio station.

On Jan. 16, 1980, Pruszynski had left her job at the station and ridden a bus down Broadway, getting off in Englewood for the six-block walk to the home of her aunt and uncle, where she was staying.

She never arrived. Her body was discovered the next day in what is now Highlands Ranch.

“When this happened, it certainly had a big impact on our family and it changed our lives, I believe,” Johnson said. “At the time, my son was only a year and-a-half. And I think that gave us a focus, you know? I think without that our life just would have been in shambles.”

Despite the way the family carried on for Johnson’s son, “that emptiness in our hearts stayed forever,” she said.

Then, after multiple efforts to solve the case, a combination of old-fashioned detective work and newly developed DNA analysis led investigators to Florida, where they arrested James Curtis Clanton, formerly known as Curtis Allen White.

RELATED: DNA leads Douglas County Sheriff's Office to suspect in 1980 murder of KHOW radio intern

He was quietly returned to Colorado and faces murder and kidnapping charges in Pruszynski’s death, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock announced Monday.

By then, her parents and her brother Chet had all died.

“It’s sad they weren’t around to experience the day,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to really put into words the feelings I have, because, you know, you’re happy but it’s bittersweet. It’s really not happiness – it’s just, a calmness, I guess, that I can feel knowing that justice will prevail.”

The three Pruszynski children grew up in South Huntington on Long Island, where young Helene was an avid New York Mets fan, according to her sister. She knew all the players and their positions.

In 1972, their father changed jobs and the family moved to Hamilton, Mass., northeast of Boston. And Helene became a Red Sox rooter.

She was a student at Wheaton College when she came to Colorado for that internship.

“She just was an eager beaver, go-getter in college, you know?” Johnson said. “She was a strong person and she got involved – she made things happen.”

Scholarships were established in her memory at both her high school and college. Former classmates came to Colorado more than a decade ago to retrace her final hours and encourage investigators to keep searching for her killer.

That renewed work led to the day Johnson acknowledged she didn't think she'd ever see.

“You know, I was always hopeful, but I just thought after 40 years, you know, it’s been a long time,” she said.

Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

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