Chapter 4: James Kluppelberg's return home

November 25, 2013

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
James Kluppelberg

“You know, I may have been deprived of my life for 25 years, but my children were deprived the privilege of a father. That’s something that a lot of people overlook. There’s a lot of victims in this. It isn’t just the people who perished in the fire. It isn’t just me. It spider-webs and laterals out to my children, my grandchildren, my wife, my sisters, my brother, my mother.”

“TIM WHO?” she asked.

“No, it’s Jim,” James said into the phone.

“OK. Jim who?”

Rena’ knew a lot of Tim’s and Jim’s, friends and customers at the Econo Lodge Hotel in Silver City, New Mexico, where she worked, some 1,500 miles away from Chicago.

Follow the stories of three Illinois exonerees through their wrongful convictions, releases and struggles to put their lives back together as free men.

James told her it was him, from the letters.

Rena’ first got in touch with James through a prison correspondence service almost 20 years ago. She picked him at random from a list of inmates. His last name, “Kluppelberg,” started with a ‘K,’ and so did hers. When Rena’ learned he was serving six life sentences, she felt safe he wouldn’t get out and find her.

She wasn’t looking for a relationship. On the contrary, she was trying to free herself of what had become burdensome correspondence with four other inmates, all sons of a friend who had passed away. Rena’ thought she’d look into a prison correspondence service and see if an inmate on the other end found it valuable.

James was that inmate. His then-wife intercepted Rena’s email and put them in touch. James gave Rena’ the information she needed to get her friend’s boys set up.

Ten years later, when she was passing through Chicago before moving south, Rena’ took the weekend to visit James and say thanks. His wife accompanied her.

It was the first and only time during his incarceration that they met face-to-face. The group had one hour.

After his wife divorced him, James sent Rena’ a letter. He told her he didn’t have many connections on the outside, and the two became pen pals. He wrote about five letters to her one, sometimes telling her the same story twice.

She became curious about his case. 

“Ask me any question you want, and I’ll answer it,” he would write.

The more Rena’ read, the more she realized her pen pal was in the wrong place. Assured of his innocence, she wrote to him and asked: “What do you look for in a woman?”

She gave him her phone numbers in case he needed something, someday.

His first night as a free man, he called her from the Holiday Inn near Chicago’s O’Hare airport where his attorneys put him. He was to stay there until they could figure out where else he could go.

James and Rena’ had been talking for almost an hour when she stopped to ask: “Wait a second, who’s paying for this?”

“The attorneys!”

She hung up and called James back, explaining to him that costs had gone up since he’d been in prison.

“Well, it’s too bad that I’m in Chicago,” he said.

“Dude, they make airplanes for a reason,” Rena’ said.

They agreed she should request time off work and visit in a week’s time.

“YOUR AUNT JUST POSTED something saying your dad’s getting out,” Felicia Kluppelberg told her husband James Kluppelberg Jr. by phone.

Felicia had been cruising Facebook at their Merrillville, Ind., home where they were raising two young daughters when she saw the news clip. She called her husband immediately. A journeyman electrician, he was out working at the Springfield Avenue pumping station in Chicago.

That night when he came home, they watched the news together. There James was, on the TV. This strange, yet familiar man was back in the world.

James Jr. hadn’t seen him since he was a kid when his stepmother, one of James’ ex-wives, would take him for prison visits. He moved in with her when he was eight after spending a year in a homeless shelter with his mom, Dawn – also mother to his three half-brothers fathered by Duane Glassco, whose lies contributed to James’ wrongful conviction in 1989. About five years earlier, Dawn had left Glassco for James and brought James Jr. into the world.

On prison visits, the two James Kluppelbergs would sit together at one of many tables and chairs in a big open room. They would eat potato chips with Ketchup – the closest thing to French fries in the Department of Corrections. The potato chips had ridges, James Jr. remembers.

“It had to be Ridges because it supports the ketchup,” he says.

Prison staff would take two Polaroid pictures during the visits. One photo to stay. One to go.

When James, Jr. was in junior high, the visits stopped – James’ wife wanted a divorce. James kept writing to his son, but the letters went unanswered. He mailed elaborate drawings as gifts he had purchased from other inmates who were artists. No response.

“I thought he was guilty,” he says. “There was no one that said he was innocent.”

Except Dawn, the mother of his child.

A few years before James’ release, two detectives came to James Jr.’s door. As they asked questions, he started to think perhaps he had been wrong. Perhaps his dad was innocent and his mom – even though she was cracked out whenever he heard her say so – was right.

James never got the chance to see Dawn after his release. Cancer and drug addiction got her less than two weeks before he won his freedom. Some of her final days were spent at a nursing home next to Cook County Jail where James had entered the system almost a quarter of a century ago, presumably forever.

In hospice, she ripped out her own oxygen tube and took her final breaths. James Jr. and his brothers pooled their money together for her cremation and memorial service at a Baptist Church in Tinley Park, Southwest of Chicago.

James Jr. had lost his mother – did he ever have her? – and now it seemed, as James’ face flashed across the TV screen, he might be gaining a father.