James Kluppelberg

Junk science, coerced confession, and snitch testimony led to wrongful conviction

In the early morning hours of March 24, 1984, a fire erupted in the vacant first floor of a three-story apartment building on Chicago’s south side, killing 28-year-old Elva Lupercio and her five children — Santos, 10; Sonia, 8; Christobel, 6; Yadira, 4: and Anabel, 3, who lived on the second floor. Elva’s husband, Santos, managed to escape, but suffered a fractured skull and severe burns.

The fire destroyed the building, located at 4448 S. Hermitage Avenue, as well as an adjacent building and damaged another, but no one else was injured. The cause of the fire was listed as undetermined due to extensive burning and the collapse of the building. The Chicago Fire Department, which at the time handled arson investigations, deemed the fire “apparent accidental.”

More than three years later, in November 1987, Duane Glassco was arrested for burglary, theft and violation of probation. During questioning, Glassco said that he saw James Kluppelberg going back and forth to the building where the fire broke out. Glassco said he made the observation from the window of a nearby attic apartment in which he and Kluppelberg lived and that Kluppelberg had admitted that he set the blaze.

In December, 1987, detectives in the Chicago Police Bomb and Arson Unit were assigned to investigate two car fires which occurred at 820 W. Belle Plaine Avenue on Chicago’s north side, 15 miles from the Hermitage fire.

The fires on Belle Plaine were reported by Kluppelberg, 22, who worked there as a security guard. Police brought Kluppelberg in ostensibly to talk to him about the car fires, but instead began questioning him about the Hermitage Avenue fire.

Police said that during the interview, Kluppelberg admitted setting fire to the cars and also to starting several other fires, including the fatal fire on Hermitage Avenue.

On January 27, 1988, Kluppelberg was indicted on charges of arson and six counts of murder.

In November 1988, Kluppelberg’s alleged confession was ordered suppressed by a judge after Kluppelberg claimed he had been beaten and presented evidence that when he was admitted to the Cook County Jail after his interrogation, he had several bruises in his kidney area and was urinating blood. The judge concluded Kluppelberg had been beaten by police and that his statement had been coerced.

The prosecution sought the death penalty at trial in Cook County Circuit before a judge without a jury in January 1990.

Glassco testified that although he was high on drugs on the night of the fire, he saw Kluppelberg going to and from the Hermitage Avenue building just prior to the fire.

Francis Burns, a Chicago Fire Department captain, testified that he went to the fire as part of a training exercise, not in an official capacity. At the time, suspicious fires were investigated by the Chicago Police Bomb and Arson Unit. Although the fire already had been officially termed accidental, Burns testified that he believed the fire was arson. He conceded that he took no notes, made no reports, and never told anyone of his belief, but he testified from memory that he saw burn patterns that indicated the fire was arson.

On July 14, 1989, following a bench trial, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Loretta Hall Morgan found Kluppelberg guilty.

On October 7, 1989, while he was awaiting sentencing, Kluppelberg walked out of the Cook County jail after his bond records were altered to lower his bond from no bond to $25,000. His mother posted $2,500 in cash and Kluppelberg was released.

Jail officials discovered that a jail employee had been bribed with $3,000 worth of cocaine to alter the record. Kluppelberg was arrested days later in Macon, Georgia.

On March 22, 1990, Judge Morgan rejected the death penalty and sentenced Kluppelberg to life in prison without parole.

On December 23, 1993, Kluppelberg’s conviction was upheld by the Illinois Court of Appeals. He was denied leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

On October 6, 1994, Kluppelberg filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging that his trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense for failing to elicit testimony that the fire was initially deemed an accident and for going against Kluppelberg’s wish to have a jury trial.

The petition was dismissed by a state court judge, but in 2002 the Illinois Court of Appeals reinstated the petition after finding that Kluppelberg’s post-conviction attorney had provided inadequate legal assistance in preparing the post-conviction petition.

Although remanded, the petition was ultimately dismissed on January 14, 2004.

In May 2009, another post-conviction petition was filed on Kluppelberg’s behalf by attorneys at the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. Kluppelberg’s defense was later joined by lawyers at the firm of Winston & Strawn, working pro bono.

The petition included an avalanche of new evidence that Kluppelberg was innocent. Glassco had recanted, saying not only that he did not see Kluppelberg coming and going from the building, but that it was impossible to see the Hermitage Avenue building from the attic apartment because another building stood in the way. Aerial photos confirmed the impossibility.

Glassco also said that Kluppelberg had never admitted setting the fire and that he agreed to implicate Kluppelberg to escape prison time on the charges he was facing at the time. He also said he was angry at Kluppelberg at the time because Kluppelberg had begun dating Glassco’s former girlfriend. The evolution of arson science had shown that the burn patterns cited as evidence of arson by Burns did not reliably indicate that a fire was deliberately set. These "indicators" are now considered to have no valid scientific basis.

Moreover, police reports had been discovered documenting an interview with a woman named Isabel Ramos shortly after the fire during which she said she may have started the fatal blaze. Ramos admitted setting a fire at 4504 South Marshfield Avenue—less than three blocks from the Hermitage Avenue fire—after 12 hours of drinking in local taverns because she was angry at her landlord and a neighbor.

She said she also might have started the Hermitage Avenue fire, but that she was too drunk to remember.

Ramos was convicted of arson for the fire on Marshfield Avenue. The report of her statement was never disclosed to Kluppelberg’s lawyer before his trial. Lawyers for Kluppelberg and prosecutors in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office contested the petition for the next three years, until, on May 30, 2012, the prosecution announced that it no longer believed it could carry its burden of proof of guilt.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Rickey Jones vacated the convictions and the charges were dismissed.

Kluppelberg, after nearly 25 years in prison, was released on May 31, 2012.

— Maurice Possley