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Exoneree Diaries: James grapples with the finances of a new life

James spent 25 years falsly imprisioned, but while his crime was absolved his debts were not. Now a lost job complicates plans for rebuilding his life.

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Exoneree Diaries: James grapples with the finances of a new life

James Kluppelberg

WBEZ/Andrew Gill

“I have no doubt that my life would be totally different. I would have a very successful business by now. I’d be looking towards retirement with great anticipation. Now, it’s extreme horror because I haven’t been able to pay social security taxes for the last 25 years. I haven’t been able to plan a retirement plan. I haven’t been able to do all those things that you’re supposed to do when you’re young so that you can relax when you get to be my age.”

YOU ARE REQUIRED to pay the terms of the child support order listed below.”

Every month, the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services sent James a bill. It said the same thing: Delinquency. May or may not include all of the interest that you may owe. Nine percent a year. And almost $18,000 of back child support payments due.

He had rekindled a relationship with two of his children since being released, living with his son’s family and spending his free time with his granddaughters, Mel and Rylie.

“She don’t take no shit from nobody,” James said of Rylie, who clocked a kid who had about 25 pounds on her at Thanksgiving dinner. The kid had pinched her, and she punched him with a closed fist.

“I bet he won’t do that again,” James laughed.

His other child, a daughter named Sarah, who first wrote to him in prison as a teenager, lived in Virginia with her red-headed spitfire toddler Tori.

But James had a third child, another daughter, who didn’t speak to him. He had been married to her mother in the 80s, before his conviction. It was a bumpy relationship that ended in divorce, though they got back together for a stint in 2000, while he was in prison fresh off another divorce.

For the nearly 25 years of his life sentence, he couldn’t support a child because he wasn’t earning a real wage, apart from the pittance the Illinois Department of Corrections gave him for various prison jobs. But for 25 years, the state of Illinois racked up his child support, and when he was released, he was expected to pay up.

He couldn’t pay it, and he couldn’t pay to fight it. So the bills came. And as he hoped for some compensation for his wrongful conviction, the state fought his petition in the courts.

AFTER WORKING AS A TEMP at a steel tubing manufacturer, starting at $10 an hour, James was hired on full-time. His pay increased to $14.69 an hour.

Saving as much as he could, James was ready to deliver on his promise to his longtime prison pen pal-turned-girlfriend Rena’ to get his own place so that she could move up north. He had trouble with his credit – didn’t really have any – so they put almost everything in her name.

James refused to live in Illinois, so he found a cozy two-bedroom rental near his son’s home in Crown Point. It was quiet, and the neighbors were nice.

By the time James hopped on a plane to Albuquerque to move Rena’ up, he found out he was losing his job.

The manufacturer had a requirement that its factory workers had to be able to operate an overhead crane to lift heavy objects on a trolley along a rail.

“I couldn’t feel safe doing it,” James said. “I couldn’t feel comfortable. Three buttons that control six functions. You are flying a load over people’s heads.

And the hefty, U-shaped piece of machinery didn’t seem to have any brakes.

“The harder I tried, the worse I got at it.”

When being let go, James was told he was a good worker and that he could use them as a reference. They would attest to his excellent attendance, punctuality and willingness to work overtime, even when his back and legs ached from the hard labor.

He left without a letter of recommendation.

ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, James rented a 16-foot Budget truck and drove to Silver City, New Mexico. Three of Rena’s staff members from the hotel helped her load up an entire life of belongings. It was going to be a tight fit for the new home waiting for them on the other side.

She had the usual household items -- couches and chairs -- and the unusual -- swords, knives, Asian axes, katanas (Japanese swords) and two guns for self-defense.

“It’s not just a collection,” she explained. “Many people when they have a bad day, they have something to relieve their stress. Some people like ice cream. Other people, like me, like swords. It’s how I clear the cobwebs of the day.”

Rena’ would “turn them” outside because most houses weren’t large enough on the inside to move such weapons about, without risking the carpet and walls. One time she got her leg and developed a healthy respect for the weapon’s power.

All packed up, they caravanned to Indiana. Rena’ drove her F-150 truck and started out in the lead as James drove the 16-footer. Only about 1,500 miles and they would be home.

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