Chicago officials settled with James Kluppelberg for $9.3 million for wrongful conviction

By Jason Meisner Contact Reporter
Chicago Tribune

Chicago officials have agreed to pay $9.3 million to a man wrongfully convicted of setting a 1984 fire that killed a mother and her five children, a crime he confessed to only after he was allegedly beaten by detectives working under disgraced Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

The proposed settlement in the federal lawsuit brought by James Kluppelberg marks the latest in a string of massive payouts by the city involving cases of alleged police misconduct.

It also adds to the ever-mounting costs of the torture scandal involving Burge and his “midnight crew” of detectives, which has stained the city’s reputation and so far cost taxpayers at least $115 million in lawsuit settlements, judgments and other compensation to victims.

The $9.3 million deal, reached as the trial over Kluppelberg’s lawsuit was set to go to trial in August, will be considered by the City Council’s Finance Committee at its meeting Friday. If approved , the full City Council will vote on the proposal next week.

Neither Kluppelberg nor his attorney could be reached for comment Wednesday. A spokesman for the city’s Law Department had no comment.

Kluppelberg, 52, spent nearly 25 years in prison for setting the fatal blaze that killed Elva Lupercio, 28, and her five children, ages 3 to 10, in their home in the 4400 block of South Hermitage Avenue. The building was destroyed. Testing did not find any signs of accelerants.

Fire investigators originally labeled the cause undetermined and said it appeared to have been an accident. But the case was reopened more than four years later when a man arrested on burglary charges told police that Kluppelberg had set the fire. The man’s girlfriend had left him for Kluppelberg a few weeks after the fire, Kluppelberg’s attorney told the Tribune after his conviction.

Kluppelberg was arrested and later confessed to the arson. The lawsuit filed by Kluppelberg in May 2013 alleged that he confessed only after being beaten so badly by Chicago police detectives working under Burge that he urinated blood. Doctors found signs of trauma to his back and kidneys, and a trial judge later threw out Kluppelberg’s confession but not the underlying charges.

Kluppelberg’s attorneys at the law firm of Winston & Strawn and the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School had argued that the fire was not intentionally set, citing their expert, who found that it might have been accidental.

The man who first implicated Kluppelberg recanted and said in a sworn statement that he had lied to get leniency in his burglary case. And Kluppelberg’s attorneys alleged that authorities had concealed information about a woman who admitted setting a fire to a home on the same night about a block away. The woman, who was convicted of that arson, told officials she had been too drunk to remember whether she had set the fire blamed on Kluppelberg.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Cook County prosecutors dismissed the charges against Kluppelberg, saying they no longer could meet their burden of proof.

Kluppelberg left prison that year with $14.17 in the pocket of his gray sweatpants. He moved to Indiana to be close to his son and daughter-in-law, who supported him while he unsuccessfully looked for work. He later told the Tribune he felt “lost,” struggling to adjust to life on the outside and sleeping only three or four hours a night.

“I thought my life would be moving forward by now,” Kluppelberg said in the 2013 interview. “In a way, I feel like I’m still locked up.”

Records show Kluppelberg has a home repair business with his son in Crown Point. Calls to the business were not returned Wednesday.

If approved, the $9.3 million settlement in Kluppelberg’s lawsuit would mark yet another massive payout for the city in a police misconduct case. In the past three months alone, more than $100 million in judgments and legal fees have been assessed against the city for police-related cases, including a record $44.7 million jury verdict in October for a man who was shot by his childhood friend, Officer Patrick Kelly, in an off-duty incident.

In December, the City Council approved a $31 million payout for the “Englewood Four,” who each spent some 15 years in prison for a 1994 rape and murder before DNA linked the crime to a convicted killer.

And earlier this month, a federal judge ordered the city to pay at least $5.6 million in legal fees to attorneys for a former El Rukn gang member who won a $22 million jury verdict on claims he was framed by Chicago police for an infamous 1984 double murder.

Meanwhile, Kluppelberg’s lawsuit was one of the last pending cases involving alleged torture by Burge and his crew — a scandal that came to light three decades ago when former Mayor Richard Daley was the Cook County state’s attorney.

Burge was fired from the department in 1993 after it was determined he tortured murder suspect Andrew Wilson. In 2010, Burge was convicted in federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice after jurors found he lied under oath in a deposition for a civil suit when he denied witnessing torture or abusing suspects.

While Burge was not charged with torture, prosecutors had to prove up allegations of abuse to support the other counts. Burge spent 4 1/2 years in prison and on home confinement and now lives in Florida, where he still collects a police pension.

After years of fighting the torture claims, the city did an about-face May 2015 when a $5.5 million reparations package was approved to acknowledge those victimized by Burge.

Twitter @jmetr22b

This article was initially published in the Chicago Tribune

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