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40 Years in the Dark: How genetic genealogy solved the Helene Pruszynski murder case

Authorities found Helene's killer using science that couldn't have been imagined even a few years ago.

Kevin Vaughan

Courtesy Janet Pruszynski Johnson

Published: 12:04 PM EDT September 5, 2020
Updated: 10:27 PM EDT September 11, 2020

Just after 10:30 the chilly night of Jan. 16, 1980, Englewood police officer Richard Welbourne looked at a Polaroid photograph of a woman with a thousand-watt smile, turned it over, and wrote out a shorthand-description in a ball-point pen.

  • 5’ 100, Brn, Blue,
  • Blue Coat
  • Lt Tan Cord Type Pants
  • Grn Sweater Over White
  • Turtle Neck.
  • Lace Type Brn Shoes

The woman in the picture was 21 years old. Her name was Helene Pruszynski. She was a senior at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who had come to Denver with a classmate after they’d both been selected for internships. Helene, an aspiring journalist, was working in the news department at K-H-O-W radio. The day before, she’d covered a big story – the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a Secret Service agent inside the Denver field office.

Now, Helene was missing.

Her shift at the radio station had ended at 5:30 p.m. Responsible and punctual, she followed the same routine every day. Walk two blocks from the radio station’s office to the corner of 14th Avenue and Broadway. Climb onto an RTD bus for the trip to Englewood. Get off in front of Frank the Pizza King near the corner of Union Avenue and Broadway. Walk six blocks to the home of her aunt and uncle, where she and her classmate were staying.

She should have been home by 6:30 p.m.

Worry quickly overtook Helene’s aunt and uncle and her friend, Kitsey Snow. They’d driven to the bus stop, driven up and down Broadway, and called the radio station. They’d called the police. They’d walked the nearby streets, looking for something – anything – that might tell them where Helene was. Back at the house, Kitsey had written in her journal.

"Poor Helene. What is she going through? Where is she? Is she alright? … I can’t believe this is happening. I keep telling Aunty Wanda not to worry or imagine the worst which is of course what I am doing." 

Helene was four hours overdue when Officer Richard Welbourne arrived to take a missing persons report. Nobody – not the people who loved Helene, not the generations of detectives who would work to solve the case – could have imagined it would be nearly 40 years before there would be an answer.

And it was an answer that would only come after decades of advances in forensic science, and only because creative detectives figured out a new way to use it.

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