“Imagine how badly they must have beaten me for a Cook County judge not to be able to look the other way.”
IN THE EARLY Saturday morning hours of March 24, 1984, a blaze overtook a three-story wood-framed apartment building on the South Side of Chicago. No one lived on the first floor. Two families, related to one another, occupied the rest of the home. They were asleep in their beds.
Elva Luperico woke up her husband, Santos, to tell him the house was on fire. He scrambled to gather their five children around him: 10-year-old Santos Caesar, 8-year-old Sojia, 6-year-old Cristabell, 4-year-old Elva Yadira and 3-year-old Annabell.
The family on the third floor was able to get out. But when Santos tried to escape through the front and back doors, flames greeted him. In a back bedroom, he looked out the window to see lashes of fire coming together and separating every few seconds.
He decided to exit through the window so that Elva could give him the children. He explained to her what he was going to do. As he tried to go down, the floor gave way and he fell from the second floor.
Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.
He screamed for help. Someone carried him to the outside, and an ambulance took him to Holy Cross Hospital. He had fractured his skull, burned his back from the mid-hip to his rib cage and lost hearing in his right ear. He was treated in Chicago for about a week, then was taken to Mexico, where he continued to be treated for the burns.
He never saw his wife and kids again. They had all been pronounced dead at Mercy Hospital within hours of the fire.
THE CITY’S only fire investigation unit at the time was the Chicago Police Department’s Bomb and Arson Unit. Investigators could not determine how or where the fire started because the building had collapsed. They tested the debris to see if a fire accelerant was used, which would indicate arson. The results came back negative. The case was ruled an accident and closed.
Investigators didn’t probe further, until nearly four years later when 23-year-old Duane Glassco was arrested and charged with burglary, a crime unrelated to the fire deaths. Glassco saw the opportunity to both get a break on his case and retaliate against the man for whom his girlfriend had left him – James Kluppelberg.
He told police he had witnessed James going back and forth to the apartment building the night it burned down. Glassco added to the story, saying he could see James about a block away through an attic window at a home where both men had been staying. Another building obstructs the attic view, a fact that would not emerge for more than two decades.
JAMES, then 22, was repairing frozen pipes at an apartment building on South Hermitage Avenue when police came for him in January 1988. He was accustomed to long, 10- to 12-hour work days, trying to get his home remodeling company off the ground.
The officers said they wanted to show him some photos back at the station because James had reported two car fires on Christmas Eve near where he worked as a security guard.
They took him to the Bomb and Arson squad office on South State Street at the Central Police Station. The 13-floor steel building, with a small moat separating the south wall from the parking lot, was demolished in 2003 for condo space.
They put James in a 10 by 12 foot interview room with a tinted one-way mirror window. The space had two doorways, one leading out and the other leading to a lieutenant’s office.
James called his lawyer, who wasn’t in. He then agreed to talk a lie detector test, but just before, when police handed him a waiver that stated he would be asked questions about homicides from 1984, he stopped.
“I asked them what they were trying to do and that is when the officer got violent and slammed me up against the wall and put a pair of cuffs on me and dragged me back upstairs,” James later would testify at a hearing leading up to his trial.
A few hours later, an assistant state’s attorney would show up to jot down nine sentences, summarizing James’ confession to police.
MARSHALL WEINBERG, James’ lawyer, woke up to a phone call. His clock radio and watch told him it was 2:15 in the morning. On the line was James’ fiancée. She placed him on a three-way call with James.
“He was incoherent. He was hysterical,” Weinberg testified. “I could barely understand him. He was crying. He was in a hysterical state. I had to stop him, yell at him and calm him down before I could understand exactly what he was saying.”
James told Weinberg he’d been beaten. Weinberg instructed him not to make any more statements to police or prosecutors.
The booking officer at the jail noticed bruises on James’ lower back and kidney area. James told him he was urinating blood. An intake form showed two large markings on a diagram, right where the kidneys would be.
When Weinberg visited James in lockup, James pulled up his shirt, revealing several large bruises on his lower back. Weinberg asked a judge to send him to the county jail hospital for treatment, and the court ordered it.
It took another week before James received medical attention. He had been found doubled over in the bathroom.
Eight days after James was treated, Commander Jon Burge announced to the media the police department’s triumph over the 1984 fire deaths.
“Klupperberg [sic] told us he had been setting fires since he was nine years old,” Burge told reporters.
Burge would later become a convicted felon on obstruction and perjury charges, after having been tied to scores of torture cases over a nearly 20-year period, costing the City of Chicago millions of dollars.
BEFORE THE MURDER TRIAL, a judge threw out James’ confession.
“We cannot have statements that are the result of mistreatment by the police,” Judge Robert Collins said in November 1988. “There is no disagreement in that area.”
At trial in 1989, the state presented an arson expert, Commander Francis Burns, who worked in the Chicago Fire Department’s Office of Fire Investigations, which was not operating at the time of the fire. Burns testified he went to the apartment building after the fire for a training exercise, taking no notes and making no reports.
From memory, he told the court about V-shaped burn patterns he observed, which made him think the fire was an arson.
Duane Glassco also testified, having made a deal with the prosecution. After a burglary conviction, he was due to be sentenced for a probation violation.
Glassco said he was coherent the night of the fire, despite having taken cocaine. His ex-girlfriend also said they had been taking animal tranquilizers called “tic.”
“And I asked him what he did, and the only thing he did was smile at me,” Duane told the court about seeing James the night of the fire.
JAMES WAS CONVICTED. He was facing six life sentences without parole when Chicago newspapers reported he had escaped and was captured four days later in Macon, Ga., in October 1989. A correctional officer had altered records to allow James to post bond and walk out of jail.
It would be another 23 years until he would walk free without chains.