Kluppelberg Cropped
James Kluppelberg
Convicted 1985 (age: 19)
6 deaths
Sentence: Life Without Parole
Exonerated May 2012

Ajax Loader Gif

Man convicted of deadly 1984 arson 'blown away' by prison release

After new investigation, prosecutors dismiss charges in 1984 fire that killed 6

May 31, 2012|By Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune reporter


James Kluppelberg and his lawyer Karl Leonard arrive at O'Hare Airport in Chicago after Kluppelberg was released from prison earlier in the day. (Scott…)

A man who spent nearly a quarter-century behind bars for his conviction for setting a 1984 fire that killed a woman and her five children will be released from prison after Cook County prosecutors unexpectedly dropped the case against him.

James Kluppelberg, 46, who once faced the death penalty in the case, was convicted of setting the March 1984 fire that killed 28-year-old Elva Lupercio and her five children, ages 3 to 10, at their home in the 4400 block of South Hermitage Avenue in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Santos Lupercio, Elva's husband and the father of the children, survived the fire. He could not be reached Wednesday.

Karl Leonard of the law firm Winston & Strawn said he planned to travel to Menard Correctional Center today and bring his client home –- though prison officials said it was not clear when Kluppelberg would be released.

Leonard said he spoke with Kluppelberg after the hearing Wednesday and had expected that prison officials already would have notified Kluppelberg that he was going to be released.

Kluppelberg, however, was surprised by the news.

"He was blown away," Leonard said. "He said he had been praying for it for a long time, and he couldn't believe it was finally true."

Although the fire was initially ruled accidental by the Police Department's Bomb and Arson Unit, the cause of the blaze was changed by firefighters to arson — although no reports of a Fire Department investigation were written. Police said Kluppelberg confessed to the crime after being linked to other fires.

But the confession was ruled inadmissible in court because it had been coerced, and it was not used at Kluppelberg's trial.

Kluppelberg was connected to the fire by a friend he lived with, a three-time convicted burglar who said that he saw Kluppelberg go back and forth to the Lupercio home and that Kluppelberg told him: "You know how I am when I feel I'm losing someone. I do stupid things."

Kluppelberg maintained his innocence from the beginning. On appeal, his attorneys argued that the blaze was not even an arson, saying that advances in science after Kluppelberg's conviction changed how officials investigated fires. Among those advances: Indicators that investigators long believed meant a fire had been intentionally set simply were signs of a blaze that burned especially hot or went to flashover and exploded.

A 2004 Tribune series, "Forensics Under the Microscope," examined the advances in fire science and how the use of debunked arson indicators had led to possible wrongful convictions of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. In a follow-up story, the Tribune reported on the execution of a Texas man, Cameron Todd Willingham, even though fire investigators used the same debunked theories to win his conviction.

The friend who implicated Kluppelberg later admitted he had lied because he was facing his own criminal charges.

Defense attorneys also claimed prosecutors had failed to turn over information about a woman who had set a fire a block from the Lupercio home on the same night. That woman confessed to the other fire and told police she was too drunk to remember if she had set the Lupercio fire as well.

Kluppelberg was sentenced to life in prison when a judge rejected the death penalty in the case. Before the sentence was imposed, however, Kluppelberg was mistakenly released from Cook County Jail and made his way to Georgia, where he was captured and returned to jail. A jail guard was later charged with helping Kluppelberg go free; police said he did so after Kluppelberg helped him obtain cocaine.

Cook County prosecutors had been challenging the appeal efforts, but on Wednesday they told a judge they wanted to dismiss the charges.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, said the decision to dismiss the charges followed a "comprehensive post-conviction reinvestigation" that included hiring an expert to evaluate the forensic evidence. That review, said Daly, led prosecutors to conclude the office could not "meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt." It consequently decided to dismiss the case.

Leonard and Gayle Horn, an attorney from The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, were surprised when prosecutors told the judge they were dismissing the case. But Leonard said a fire expert who analyzed the evidence for the lawyers offered a powerful rebuttal to the arson claims, essentially determining that the indicators the fire department relied on had been debunked.

He said the prosecutors' decision to drop the case "was a way to avoid deciding the merits of the case."

"This was an unexpected victory," Leonard said.

Kluppelberg, according to Leonard, said he had hoped to be out before his birthday, June 24.

"Now," Leonard said, "he will be."


Exonerated Chicago man claims police tortured him into confession

Published time: June 04, 2013 01:29

After spending 24 years12.si in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a Chicago man has filed a lawsuit claiming that police subjected him to violent torture methods that made him urinate blood to force him to make a false confession.

James Kluppelberg was released from a southern Illinois prison in May 2012 after his case was dismissed, 24 years after he was convicted and locked up for an arson-murder. The man was charged with setting a March 1984 fire that killed a woman and her five children – a felony crime that Kluppelberg confessed he committed.

Prosecutors initially sought the death sentence for Kluppelberg, who was 18 years old when the fire occurred and 22 when he was imprisoned. But he received a life sentence and insisted on his innocence throughout his imprisonment.

During an appeal, the man’s defense attorneys argued that the fire was not arson, and that the confession was invalid because Kluppelberg had been coerced. Now, the former inmate is arguing that he was subjected to brutal torture at the hands of police, and is demanding punitive damages.

Former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge, who is named in the complaint, was convicted in 2011 for lying about police torture and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison. Evidence presented at his trial showed that he suffocated suspects with plastic bags, held loaded guns to their heads and shocked them with electrical devices, Courthouse News reports.

The former commander was allegedly also involved in the torture inflicted upon Kluppelberg.

“Despite Mr. Kluppelberg’s innocence, the defendants beat a false confession out of him, hitting him so violently that he was urinating blood,” the lawsuit states. “The trial court ultimately suppressed Mr. Kluppelberg’s confession, finding that it was ‘obvious’ that [he] had been severely mistreated, but not before the confession was used by the defendants to set in motion [his] wrongful arrest and prosecution.”

The complaint alleges that the defendants knew the man was innocent throughout the trial and that they conspired to generate false witness statements and fabricated arson evidence. The former girlfriend of Kluppenberg testified against the man, allegedly because police beat her and threatened her children, the lawsuit states.

The man was arrested in 1988 even though police had already identified a woman who told them she “may have set” the fire, but couldn’t remember because she was intoxicated on the night of the incident.  The original fire investigators had allegedly stated that the origin of the fire could not be determined, but the defendants used false evidence to convict Kluppelberg, likely to cover up the actions of the intoxicated woman. The woman had admitted to setting a different home in the same neighborhood ablaze, but all information about her was withheld during the trial.

The complaint states that Burge and 13 other Chicago police officers were involved in torturing Kluppelberg. The suit also seeks damages from two members of the Chicago Fire Department and the City of Chicago.

The case is the latest in a series of lawsuits filed against Chicago police on allegations of torture. In January, the city of Chicago was forced to pay $10.25 million to compensate a man who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The victim, Alton Logan, said police, including the former Commander Burge, had tortured him into confessing.

Before this settlement, the city had already paid about $30 million to compensate victims tortured under Burge’s leadership and $16 million in legal fees, the Chicago Sun Times reported.

Last month, a commission that investigates claims by inmates who say they were tortured found seven new cases that it may pursue – five of which involve Burge, and all of which will be referred to the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, ABC reports.

Between 1972 and 1991 – the years that Burge served as commander – approximately 135 African-American men and women were arrested and tortured under his leadership, the University of Chicago’s Human Rights watch reported in 2007.

“It is common knowledge that in the early to mid-1980s Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and many officers working under him [partook] in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions,” concluded the 1999 court case Maxwell v. Gilmore.

Reports of torture incidents involving Burge continue to arise and with each lawsuit, the city faces potential settlements at the expense of its taxpayers.

Despite the fact that Kluppelberg was released from prison in 2012, the 47-year-old will never regain the lost years that were robbed from him by police. He has struggled to make money and get back on his feet after spending more than two decades in prison.

“I’m really lost at this point,” he told the Chicago Tribune while standing outside the Menard Correction Center with nothing but $14 in his pocket, last year. “I don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow morning.”

The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation for violations of Kluppelberg’s constitutional rights, malicious prosecution and emotional distress. If the former inmate’s claims are valid, he could become the latest case in which the city will be required to shovel out taxpayer dollars to compensate Burge’s torture victims.