Man freed after 24 years in prison

May 31, 2012 8:48:50 PM PDT
''Everything I owned is gone,'' James Kluppelberg said after spending 24 years in prison for a fatal fire he says he never set.

Kluppelberg walked out of the Menard Correctional Center a free man on Thursday after charges were dropped in the 1984 fire that killed six people on Chicago's South Side. He was set free after Cook County prosecutors decided to drop the case and a judge ordered his conviction vacated.

In late March 1984, fire raced through a Back-of-the-Yards three-flat. Elva Lupercio, 28, and five of her young children, ages 3 to 10, were killed. The initial thought was the fire was accidental, but almost four years later, police charged then 22-year-old Kluppelberg with multiple counts of arson-murder. He was convicted, and spent 24 years in prison, all the while maintaining his innocence.

"It's scary, shocking. Numb. It's been a long time, you know. January of '88 is the last time that I walked free without chains," Kluppelberg said Thursday. "Everything I owned is gone. My property is gone. My business is gone. I mean, to just say you can go home now with $14 and some change, I mean, I think someone has to be held accountable for that."

Kluppelberg got the word Wednesday that his legal team had triumphed. They had contended that investigators wrongly concluded that the fatal fire was set, and that modern day fire science would back up their claim.

The State's attorney's office hired a fire forensics expert, and based on what he found, the office determined "it is unable to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt..." and moved to dismiss charges.

"We appreciate the state's attorney finally determining that this was a case they didn't want to fight and essentially conceding that Kluppelberg ought to go home," Tara Thompson, Exoneration Project, said.

Now 46, Kluppelberg doesn't know what happens next. He has lost touch with most members of his family.

When he was first charged in 1988, disgraced police commander Jon Burge announced Kluppelberg had confessed. The confession was not allowed into evidence, but a friend fingered Kluppelberg as the arsonist -- and then later recanted.

"We're gonna have other evidence to present more evidence to seek certificate of innocence for him and to present evidence that he didn't do this," Kluppelberg said.

Kluppelberg is expected back in Chicago on Thursday evening. Apart from the attorneys who worked his case, he apparently has few connections to the world outside of prison, a world he left 24 years ago.


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