Exoneree Diaries: James Kluppelberg reconnects with his kids

February 10, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
James Kluppelberg

“What do you say to children you haven’t seen in years? Or haven’t ever met? ‘Hi.’ The rest comes naturally.”

SARAH WAS CHECKING her Facebook during an introductory college business class in Richmond, Va., when she saw James’ sister, whom she didn’t really know, had sent her a message.

“Your dad is out.”

She walked out of class and broke down, calling her other aunt, Laura, to verify.

“I need you to check this out,” Sarah told her. “I don’t have time. I’m in class.  Find out what’s going on.”

“It’s true,” her aunt later texted back. It was May 31, 2012, and she had seen the news stories about James’ release that day.

Within hours, they tracked down his attorneys and got a hold of James at the airport.

Sarah, the only one of his three children without his last name, was the only one who had kept in touch with him in recent years. But she knew next to nothing about him until she was almost 15 years old.

James had briefly dated her mother in the ‘80s. Sarah’s grandparents and aunt Laura, who raised her, took her to Virginia when she was a few months old.

By her teen years, Sarah yearned to who her father was, but she was afraid to discover that another parent didn’t want her, she says.

“Look, you need to find him,” a counselor had told Sarah’s aunt Laura. “She needs the closure. If he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, then so be it. She needs to know.”

Laura called an information number in Chicago and was connected to a listing.

“Can I please speak with James Kluppelberg?” she asked.

“Hold on one second—this is his ex-wife, how can I help you?”

“I have his daughter, and I’m trying to find him.”

The ex-wife gave her James’ address in prison. Later that evening, Laura talked to Sarah.

“Your father is in prison,” she told her, handing her the address. “You can write him, you cannot write him. This is your choice.”

“DEAR JAMES,” Sarah soon wrote.

James opened the letter in prison and read the words: “You may not believe this but I’m your daughter.”

With one sentence, and a bundle of photos chronicling her childhood, a nearly 13-year correspondence was born.

“I wrote her back and told her ‘wonderful to get to you know you,’” James says. “I was full of questions.”

That first year, the letters comprised one big “get-to-know-you session,” James says. Likes, dislikes, family history—“things that you miss with a child growing up.”

He quickly became protective, getting on to her about smoking.

“Women on the maternal side of my family that smoke don’t live to see 60,” he would warn her.
When James learned that Sarah liked dragons, he paid an artist, a fellow inmate, about $40 for a drawing. Others went for as little as $5.

“It was a real nice one,” James says. “Guy did it in pencil for me.”

Sarah sent him pictures as well – ultrasound images when she became pregnant with her daughter Tori. James commissioned some more artwork, sending her a package of more than a dozen drawings of barnyard animals -- about $160 in the prison marketplace -- after Sarah told him she planned on an animal theme for the nursery.

“I had 20 or 30 of them water-painted,” James remembers.

But for the first six to eight years, Sarah wasn’t sure if her dad was innocent.  She lived with the mindset that if he didn’t do it, he would eventually get out. And if he did do it, then he’s where he ought to be, she thought.

“And God saw fit that he got out,” Sarah says.

When James took her call at the airport, it marked their second phone call in 13 years.

It was time to meet.

THE SOONEST THEY COULD arrange for a visit was Fourth of July weekend in Fort Wayne, Ind., where Sarah had some family.

She piled in a Chevy Blazer with her aunt and daughter Tori, heading northwest for the 10-hour trip. Sarah was excited and worried. “Will he like me?” she wondered, driving along the interstate.

They had only made it halfway before they ran out of gas. A storm had blown through several states, knocking out power. Her aunt’s brother brought them some gas, and they made it to a service station in West Virginia, where they slept in the car.

Finally, at the La Quinta Inn in Fort Wayne, she met James. He and James Jr., Felicia and the kids – whom Sarah had also never met – came up to their hotel room.

“It was emotional, surreal, breathtaking,” James says, struggling to remember the details. “I just remember us all walking in, and I might have given her a hug. It was one of those things as it was happening, you don’t see it happening. It’s a blur.”

Sarah remembers the moment as tense.

“I mean, it’s the first time I met the man. I was 27 years old,” she says. “He had only been out a couple months. We were all adjusting.”

James spent the whole next day with his kids and grandkids at an arcade and bowling alley. He bowled a little until his arm gave out.

“I enjoyed more just watching my granddaughters bowl and everyone having a good time,” James says. “Melanie and Rylie just took to her [cousin Tori] instantly. It’s the types of things you hope to have someday when you’re locked up, and then to realize that, finally have that happen, is priceless.”

The tension started to ease up, and the family finished the night at a fast-food joint, Dog ‘n Suds, a drive-in. There they broke bread, chowing down on hot dogs, fries and onion rings. James washed it down with a root beer as his granddaughter Rylie dipped her plain hot dog in ketchup. Sarah took photos of the family between bites.

“Rylie fell asleep in my lap,” James says of one photo.

After breakfast the next day, the short trip came to an end. James Jr. had to work the next day.

“Time was short,” Sarah remembers. “We were upset about having to go.”

They all pledged to see each other again.

“It was easy then to stay in touch, cell phones and everything,” James says. “And I was out. Staying in touch wasn’t going to be a problem.”

Within months, James would pull up a cell phone picture of his granddaughter Tori and chuckle at the image of the red-headed toddler tasting her first lemon.

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