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Life in prison for man who raped, burned Lansing woman and attacked prison staff

The dark, grainy video took an interminable five minutes to play: a building on a dark stretch of a Northwest Indiana highway; a flash of light; the headlights of a car tearing out from the parking lot.

Then, more than two minutes in, the fiery silhouette of a burning woman staggers onto the road, light flickers as she rolls on the ground to snuff out the flames.

Diane Pranske survived, and despite the pain from third-degree burns covering a third of her body, walked a half-mile up the road to a McDonald’s. She managed to give a detailed statement to police about the man who had kidnapped, raped, set her on fire and left her to die.

Friday, a federal judge in Chicago sentenced Pranske’s attacker, Carleous Clay, to life in prison. On top of the life sentence, Clay also received an additional term of 10 years for an attack 18 months later when he tried to take a prison caseworker hostage inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

“The level of terror you inflicted on these two women is unimaginable,” U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall said, staring at the bald, beefy defendant. “The physical pain you inflicted on Ms. Pranske alone is difficult to hear.”

Kendall noted Clay’s lengthy criminal history — a prosecution filing said Clay had been in prison, on parole of facing criminal charges for 22 straight years beginning at age 14 — and that many of his crimes seemed to target women.

The courtroom gallery was filled with Pranske’s supporters, seated alongside dozens of MCC staff. Pranske, who gave a statement in court, sat in a wheelchair out front. It was the first time she had seen Clay –– who pleaded guilty on the eve of his trial –– since the attack. Pranske said she was “overjoyed” with the life sentence.

“It means that the world is safe from that evil monster,” Pranske said, her speech slurred by her injuries. “It makes me happy to know that I had something to do with putting him away. I’m sorry I had to pay the price, but, oh well, that’s what had to happen.”

Diane Pranske embraces supporters in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Building on Friday, after a federal judge sentenced Carleous Clay to life in prison for kidnapping Pranske from her home in Lansing, then raping and setting her on fire with lighter fluid. | Andy Grimm for the Sun-Times

In the courtroom, Clay showed little reaction to any of the proceedings, staring at a monitor screen in front of him or glancing at the judge. Asked to address the court before he was sentenced, Clay apologized to both women.

“I don’t smile when I think about what happened. It bothered me because that’s not that person I am, especially when it comes to doing something to a woman,” he said. “I thank God every day that Diane got up that day. I thank God that she’s alive. I was scandalous toward her. I was rotten.”

Pranske spent nine months in hospitals immediately after the September 2015 attack, including three months in an intensive care unit. For years, she endured daily scrubbing of her damaged skin, and remains unable to walk and is legally blind. Her longtime boyfriend quit his job to be her full-time caregiver.

Clay, who was on parole and had moved into a Lansing house near Pranske’s thanks to a church program for ex-offenders, broke into her house while she was at work, taking electronics, but also several pairs of her underwear and videotapes labeled as family events, Assistant U.S. Attorney Angel Krull said.

Clay went back to the house a second time, and was interrupted by Prenske when she returned from work. He threatened her with a hammer, and forced her into the tiny trunk of her Chevy Aveo. He drove to an ATM and tried to withdraw funds from her account, then drove her to an abandoned building in Burns Harbor, Ind. There, he raped her, then strangled her unconscious. He doused her in lighter fluid, then set her on fire before driving off in her car.

 

Diane Pranske talks to reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Building on Friday, after a federal judge sentenced Carleous Clay to life in prison for kidnapping Pranske from her home in Lansing, then raping and setting her on fire with lighter fluid. | Andy Grimm for the Sun-Times

Diane Pranske talks to reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Building on Friday, after a federal judge sentenced Carleous Clay to life in prison for kidnapping Pranske from her home in Lansing, then raping and setting her on fire with lighter fluid. | Andy Grimm for the Sun-Times

While awaiting trial on that case Clay maintained a spotless disciplinary history, until late one night in April 2017, he told a caseworker at the MCC he was having problems with another inmate. Once inside her office, Clay pulled out a homemade knife and forced her to lock the door.

The caseworker, a 20-year veteran of the federal Bureau of Prisons, shouted for help on a radio when Clay was distracted, and prison staff unlocked the door and doused Clay with pepper spray. In his socks, Clay had secreted four long strips of fabric torn from his bed sheets, and a thinner, braided cord. He also had a note, addressed to the caseworker by name, threatening her by stating “I’m getting life imprisonment anyway, so I don’t have anything to lose.” Clay told the judge that he never intended to harm that victim, and that the attack was intended to draw armed guards who would kill him to end the hostage situation.

In the years since the attack, the caseworker said she had returned to work, but continued to struggle with post-traumatic stress.

“I thought I was going to lose my mind,” she said. “I could not shake that evil I felt in my bones and saw in (Clay’s) eyes.”

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