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Man cleared of deadly arson after 24 years in prison ‘overexcited, overjoyed’

James Kluppelberg / phofrom Illinois Dept. Corrections

James Kluppelberg / photo from Illinois Dept. of Corrections

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:47AM

While he was awaiting sentencing for a deadly arson, James Kluppelberg managed to escape Cook County Jail with the help of a crooked sheriff’s officer.

On Thursday — more than two decades later — Kluppelberg walked out from behind bars again.

But this time, he didn’t have to look over his shoulder.

“The difference now is that it’s over, said Kluppelberg, who was released from the Downstate Menard Correctional Center a day after Cook County prosecutors dropped the charges against him, citing new forensic evidence.

Kluppelberg’s 1989 escape from jail didn’t last long. He was captured four days later. The next year he was sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of setting a fire that killed a woman and her five children.

Back “then I was still fighting. I didn’t know how to deal with being wrongfully convicted. I panicked,” the 46-year-old said Thursday.

He added that he was “elated” to clear his name and finally be freed for good.

“I’m overexcited, overjoyed, apprehensive and a little nervous. I’m still trying to process my freedom,” Kluppelberg said while traveling to an airport in St. Louis with his lawyers.

The former South Sider doesn’t know where he will go once he flies home to Chicago. Since he hadn’t been in a moving vehicle in years, he felt carsick and eschewed eating his favorite Italian food for at least a few more hours.

Kluppelberg’s wife divorced him while he was in prison; he lost touch with his siblings and except for one daughter who lives in Virginia, he doesn’t know much about his other two children and three grandchildren.

“I’m sorry for what they had to go through,” he said of his family.

“They didn’t choose this.”

Kluppelberg has been behind bars since he was arrested in 1988 for the 1984 fire that killed Elva Lupercio, 28, and her five children: Santos Jr., 10; Cristobel, 6; Sonia, 8; Yadira, 4, and Annabel, 3.

During Kluppelberg’s trial, Francis Burns, a former Chicago Fire Department official, theorized that the blaze in the 4400 block of South Hermitage was ignited by someone setting a pile of newspapers and rags on fire and concluded that the burn patterns showed the fire was an arson. But advances in science prove that Burns’ theory is impossible, according to members of the University of Chicago Law School Exoneration Project.

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