UPDATED 05/31/12 – 9:45 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — A 46-year-old man cleared of setting a fire that killed a woman and her five children in 1984 has been released from prison.

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“It’s sad that it took this long,” James Kluppelberg said Thursday afternoon, when he walked out of the Menard Correctional Center, about 60 miles south of St. Louis.

As CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports, Kluppelberg had been behind bars for 24 years for a crime he did not commit. He was 23 years old when he was sent to Menard, convicted of murder and arson. He took his first steps as a free man around 12:30 p.m., a day after a Cook County judge ordered his release. Prosecutors dropped charges, saying new forensic evidence could not prove he committed the crime.

“It’s exhilarating,” Kluppelberg said after taking his first steps outside without chains in more than 20 years. “Words are hard to come by, the way that these fine people that work for the Exoneration Project, and Winston & Strawn, and Loevy & Loevy; it’s remarkable what they do. They do it selflessly.”

Thursday evening, he arrived at O’Hare International Airport, met only by reporters. Kluppelberg said he hoped to reconnect with his three children.

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Kluppelberg was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison for setting fire to a building at 4448 S. Hermitage Ave. in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in March 1984. The blaze killed Elva Lupercio and her five children – Santos Jr. 10; Sonia, 8; Cristobel, 6; Yadira 4; and Anabel, 3, the Chicago Tribune recalled.

The children’s father leapt from the second story and survived.

The initial investigation determined the fire to be accidental, but four years later, a supposed witness testified that he saw Kluppelberg at the scene, while a Fire Department investigator said the fire was arson.

A Tribune article from July 15, 1989, said Criminal Court Judge Loretta Hall Morgan found Kluppelberg guilty after a bench trial, largely on the testimony of supposed witness Duane Glassco – a convicted burglar who was Kluppelberg’s roommate.

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The article said Glassco admitted to him that he had started the fire, and told him: “You know how I am when I feel I’m losing someone. I do stupid things,” the Tribune reported. But the meaning of that statement was never explained during the trial, the newspaper reported.

But defense attorneys said Glassco had an axe to grind with Kluppelberg, because his ex-girlfriend had left him for Kluppelberg a short time earlier, the Tribune reported.

Kluppelberg was mistakenly released from the Cook County Jail after being sentenced and fled to Georgia, where he was captured and returned to Illinois, the Tribune reported. A jail guard was later charged with letting Kluppelberg out in exchange for help getting cocaine, the newspaper reported.

In 2007, two law students with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago took on the Kluppelberg case to prove his innocence. Attorney Karl Leonard has also been working to free Kluppelberg.

“That was central to our case – the expert conclusion that the science just wasn’t there to conclude that this was a crime,” Leonard said. “You would have to conclude that it was an accidental fire. You could not point to arson.”

On Wednesday, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office decided to dismiss the charges, on the grounds that prosecutors cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge ordered Kluppelberg released.

“I’m just eager to get there and see him as a free man. I’ve met him before in a prison uniform and shackles. This will be new. I’m looking forward to it,” Leonard said.

And one can imagine who is even more excited about this day.

“I’m just eager to get there and see him as a free man. I’ve met him before in a prison uniform and shackles. This will be new. I’m looking forward to it,” Leonard said.

And one can imagine who is even more excited about this day.

“I think he’s thrilled at this point. I think it’s been a long 24 year to get out, I think he was shocked yesterday like all of us were. We were not expecting this to happen. And he’s just overjoyed that he gets to go home,” Kluppelberg said.

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Kluppelberg turns 47 next month. His attorneys say unfortunately, he hasn’t kept in touch with his family.