Exoneree Diaries: James Kluppelberg struggles to find work

March 10, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
James Kluppelberg

“The hardest thing is employment because you need to be employed to survive. You need to be employed to have a place to live, things like that. And even when you tell a person that I’ve been exonerated, they look at it like, either they don’t know what the word exonerated means, or you’ve beat the system somehow. Or just point blank, I’ve had people tell me, ‘You ain’t worked in a quarter of a century, I can’t take the chance.’”

JAMES’ SON TAUGHT HIM how to use email, helping him set up a Google mail account. But James Jr. discovered his dad had no interest in social media.

“He still don't have a Facebook to this day," James Jr. laughs.

James’ social network was indeed growing months after his release from prison. James Jr. and Felicia had invited him to their church, Merrillville Wesleyan, which had an older congregation. Many parishioners had already heard about James, and they turned to him to be their handyman for odd jobs.

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

This suited James. He needed the money and tried to offer up his earnings to his son and daughter-in-law for their generosity. They had moved him to the front room of their home after finding a trundle-bed to fit the small space.

“Don’t worry about it,” James Jr. would say when his dad tried to give him cash. “I don’t need it. You need it. We’re here to support you until you can get started on your own.”

James helped out around the house where he could, caring for his two granddaughters and cooking meals for the family.

“I want to make my sauce,” James announced one day. “I need my pressure cooker.”

With his new internet skills, he found one online, bought it and made his special spaghetti sauce flavored with pork neck bones.

When James Jr. and Felicia tasted the sauce, they looked at each other in surprise.

“Wow, this is really good!” Felicia managed between bites.

James would make large batches so they could bag it up for weeknight freezer meals.

For James Jr. and Felicia’s ninth anniversary, James took their girls for the weekend, treating them to Santa’s Village, a theme park an hour and a half away in Illinois. They met back up with James Jr. and Felicia in Michigan City, Indiana, at the lighthouse mall, where James bought his granddaughters some shoes for school – black Mary Janes for Mel, who was entering fifth grade, and a pair of brown Mary Janes by Keds for Rylie, who was starting kindergarten. 

HE SPENT HIS DAYS looking for jobs and his nights on the computer filling out applications. The handyman pay wasn’t going to be enough to get his own place.

He turned to the likes of Monster.com and other job search sites where he created alerts and applied for hundreds of positions – sometimes as many as ten in one evening. Most of the time his inquiries were ignored. He also collected dozens of rejection notices.

“It just goes on and on and on and on,” James said, scrolling through his inbox of job submissions.

He hoped for something in maintenance, where he worked back in the 80s before his wrongful conviction. In prison, he had held many jobs, from entering data for vehicle registrations; manufacturing mattresses and other materials; operating printing machines; and maintaining the prison’s plumbing and doing electrical repairs.

“My dream would be an apartment-complex maintenance man,” James said. “That would be really nice. That’s what I’m good at.”

He didn’t conceal his record on his resume. In fact, he put it up top:

“Highly motivated and dedicated worker seeking a maintenance position with opportunities for advancement and long-term success.  After having his wrongful conviction overturned at the request of the State and spending over 24 years in prison unjustly, skilled and ambitious worker seeks the opportunity to join a company and contribute his skills.  Adept at multi-tasking, managing a varied workload, and finishing projects on schedule.”

His lawyer, Karl Leonard, wrote him a letter of recommendation to help address concerns about James’ background.

“I am an attorney and friend of James Kluppelberg,” the letter began. “Mr. Kluppelberg is working to rebuild his life after spending over 24 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. I believe that hiring him would be a great decision.”

Karl went on to describe the circumstances of the wrongful conviction – “junk science” behind the alleged arson and “witness” who cut a deal in exchange for statement. He explained how the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project investigated the case decades later, leading to a judge vacating the conviction and ordering James’ release in May 2012.

“Mr. Kluppelberg can never get back the time he spent in prison for a crime that he
did not commit,” Karl wrote. “However, from that terrible experience, he comes out a dedicated and skilled worker looking for a chance to make something out of himself. I, and everyone who has worked with Mr. Kluppelberg, can vouch for his desire to be a great employee.”

WHEN SOMEONE FROM HUMAN RESOURCES called him up to arrange an interview based on his maintenance experience, James was excited to make the hour drive to a Kmart distribution center in Manteno, Illinois.

James arrived and promptly began filling out paperwork.

“What’s up with the 25-year gap in your work history?” the HR lady asked him, looking over the forms.

“Well, didn’t you read my resume?” James asked.

She hadn’t.

“Then why did you call me?” James responded, handing her a copy of his resume.

She read it over and looked up at him. “I’ll be right back.”

When she returned, her words deflated James. “I’m really sorry to have wasted your time, but we don’t hire convicted murderers.”

He offered to show her articles about his case, detailing his wrongful conviction. The case was overturned, he explained.

“It doesn’t matter,” she told him. If he couldn’t clear the background check, he couldn’t work there.

“If I was a murderer, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you right now,” James persisted. “They dropped the charges. They let me go.”

The conversation wasn’t going anywhere, so James left and headed back home. He drove a 2005 Dodge Caravan that his son was letting him borrow.

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