After 25 Years in Prison, Exonerated Man Begins Healing

James Kluppelberg was released from prison Thursday after charges were dropped in connection with 1984 fire that killed a woman, five children

By Mitchell Grogg
|  Thursday, May 31, 2012  |  Updated 10:37 PM CDT
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James Kluppelberg was released from prison Thursday after charges were dropped in connection with 1984 fire that killed a woman, five children. Jeff Goldblatt reports.

James Kluppelberg was released from prison Thursday after charges were dropped in connection with 1984 fire that killed a woman, five children. Jeff Goldblatt reports.

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A man who was wrongfully convicted of arson and served 25 years in prison says he does not feel bitter. He just wants to begin healing.

"Nervous, excited, elated, apprehensive, and still trying to wrap my head around the reality of it," James Kluppelberg, 46, said shortly after his release from Menard Correctional Center, near Chester, Ill., on Thursday.

Kluppelberg was convicted of setting a fire in 1984 that killed a mother and her five children. Evidence in a recent reinvestigation of the case led prosecutors to drop it.

"I want to, you know, get in contact with my children once again," he said. "To re-establish a line of communication and maybe a life with them."

He said he missed out on much with his family.  His mother passed away several years ago. He lost touch with his three grown children. And he has three grandchildren who "don't even know I exist."

Those relationships, he hopes, will develop over time. At the same time, he acknowledges that he'll have to make a living in his new life outside prison.

"Things just as simple as finding a job is going to be extremely challenging because, how do you explain a 25-year gap in your résumé?"

But some matters are even more pressing.

"We're still trying to even figure out where I'm going to stay tonight," he said.

What he does know, however, is how he made it through 25 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

"Prayer," he said. "Extremely important. It's what kept me going. ... It was my belief that, you know, someday, you know, God would, you know, provide a way for me to be released."

He said his faith has grown since he learned he would soon be released.

"Not that my faith needed any solidification," he clarified.

Kluppelberg hopes the fire's victims will also begin to repair their emotional wounds. 

"I hope that they'll be able to see now, that it, you know, that it wasn't me, and that, you know, there were a lot of mistakes made and that, you know, maybe some healing can begin," he said.

For now, he plans to take it slow. 

"Just move forward, one day at a time. That's about all you can do, right?"

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