Exoneree Diaries: Role reversals for James Kluppelberg after prison

January 7, 2014

By: Alison Flowers

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
James Kluppelberg

“Felicia basically took me around town and showed me and taught me things. She was an extraordinary help to me. She was very patient, and I’m very grateful for all she’s done.”

JAMES HADN’T SLEPT MUCH since his release  – his internal clock was still on prison time – but somehow squeezed in a few hours at his new home. He peeled off the pink Tinkerbell sheets and got up to see who was around.

His son James Jr. had already left for work. Felicia, his daughter-in-law, sat in the kitchen.

James stood – that was his habit. He was quiet, but Felicia got him chatting. The young mom was approachable and sweet. Despite her age, she had an old soul quality about her – half-moon eyes that smiled all on their own.

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

“I felt as if I knew him for a long time," Felicia says.

She took it upon herself to show James how the world worked. Everything was at his fingertips, she explained. She pulled up Pandora Internet Radio on her computer. You can listen to anything you want, she demonstrated, typing in different songs and artists.

“Hey, let’s go shopping,” Felicia told him. “Let’s go look around.”

They drove around Merrillville, stopping by Meijer and Kmart. James was fascinated, halting in his tracks to examine unfamiliar objects for sale. Felicia didn’t mind taking her time. In fact it was nice having someone to walk with her at the mall for a change, given that her husband James Jr. wasn’t a big fan of browsing.

In a short amount of time, James got used to being out on the roads – though he had been startled when his son’s car automatically locked when they closed the doors.

“They trap you in your car now?” he had asked, bewildered.

For James Jr., it felt like Freaky Friday when he taught his own father how to drive in the parking lot of Merrillville High School.

“It was so weird,” James Jr. says, shaking his head. “He seemed to pick it up right away.”

As a teen, James Jr. had gone through this rite of passage without his father. He learned the basics from a driving school and from his stepmother, who was raising him in lieu of foster care.

James needed a little more practice before trying for his drivers permit, so Felicia let him take the car for a spin after a Saturday breakfast at the Cracker Barrel. His granddaughters sat strapped in behind them.

RENA’, JAMES LONGTIME PEN PAL and friend-turned-romantic interest cleared it with her bosses to take off for a few days and visit. She arrived into Chicago’s O’Hare airport from New Mexico on an American Airlines flight. James was waiting for her.

“He was extremely nervous,” Rena’ remembers. “He didn’t know where to sit or stand.”

She was nervous too. They knew each other, just not in person.

James and Felicia welcomed Rena’ to stay in their home, and she took them up on the offer for the first night. She used her employee discount to stay at a nearby hotel the rest of her trip.

Rena’ watched as James’ granddaughters clamored to him. He would pick them up and carry them around like precious cargo. The family dog, Thor, a Rottweiler-Sharpe mix they had found on
Craigslist a few years back, also favored him, following him about the house.

Rena’ quickly found James to be gentle, kind and considerate. And, at times, a little too doting.

“You need a fork? I’ll get you a fork,” James would say, leaping into action.

Rena’ had long been a self-sufficient woman, highly educated and hard-working. She was used to getting her own forks.

“When he went to prison, relationships were different. Women were more dependent on men,” she notes of the culture clash.

Otherwise, they seemed pretty compatible, except that Rena’ had her own life back home more than 1,000 miles away. And James had no way to support himself, let alone contribute to a relationship.

Rena’ returned to New Mexico and got back to work, back to her routine – which included a daily phone call with James.

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