The girl’s body was found by hunters near a marsh in the Karcher Wildlife Refuge in Burlington, Wisconsin on February 9, 1997.
She was partially clothed, with a black plastic bag over her head, her underwear in her pocket and a $5 Golden Books price tag from a Schaumburg, Illinois mall stuck to her arm, court documents stated.
Investigators determined that the girl had been beaten, sexually assaulted and asphyxiated by suffocation from the bag and external neck compression.
For 16 months, the victim went unidentified. The Racine County Sheriff’s Department arranged her burial as a Jane Doe. According to the Associated Press, about 100 people attended the public burial service.
After what Racine County Sheriff Chris Schmaling described as “hundreds and hundreds of investigative hours” sifting through missing persons reports matching the victim’s description, in 1998 police identified her as 14-year-old Amber Gail Creek of Palatine, Illinois.
Amber was a habitual runaway who had been in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services when she disappeared from the Columbus-Maryville children’s shelter in Chicago on January 23, 1997. She was reported missing five weeks later on February 28, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Police had recovered latent fingerprints from the bag over Amber’s head and collected the offender’s DNA from her body. However, searches of the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory fingerprint database and searches by the FBI and crime labs in the other 49 states produced no matches for nearly two decades.
On February 28, 2014, 17 years after Amber was reported missing, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations contacted Wisconsin authorities to inform them that they had found a match during a cold case project using advanced latent fingerprint comparison technology.
According to the Racine County Sheriff’s Office, the prints on the plastic bag matched those of James P. Eaton, a 36-year-old bank operations manager from Palatine who had at some point been fingerprinted for minor offenses in Illinois.
Eaton was 19 at the time of Amber Creek’s murder.
Schmaling told reporters Tuesday that Eaton had never been a suspect in the murder previously and his name had never even been mentioned in investigative reports.
Following the fingerprint match, the sheriff’s office placed Eaton under surveillance in Illinois. According to a criminal complaint, on March 22, two investigators followed Eaton from his apartment to the Palatine Metra station.
While waiting for a train, Eaton allegedly smoked two cigarettes. Investigators watched as he discarded the cigarettes on the sidewalk and walked away, and they then secured the partially used cigarette butts as evidence, the complaint stated.
The Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory matched DNA from Eaton’s cigarettes to the offender's DNA collected from Amber Creek’s body 17 years earlier, according to the complaint.
Eaton was arrested and charged with first degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse.
“While we are proud that this day has come, our sense of accomplishment is tempered by the pain and loss we know Amber’s family continues to confront every day,” Schmaling said Tuesday as he announced Eaton’s arrest.
Eaton remains in custody at the Racine County Jail. At a brief hearing Wednesday, a judge set his bond at $500,000. If released, he was ordered to have no contact with the victim’s family.
In court, Racine County District Attorney Rich Chiapete called Amber Creek’s murder a “sad, savage, brutal attack.”
“She was dumped like she was garbage,” he said, noting that Amber had a “significant” bite mark on her neck, blunt force facial trauma and a pattern of cutting injuries to her face.
“This is an individual that’s hid from the law for 17 years,” Chiapete alleged.
Public defender Katie Gutowski, appearing with Eaton at the hearing on his behalf, did not oppose a “reasonable” bond.
Gutowski declined to comment to reporters after the hearing, according to the Journal Times, and she did not return calls from HLN seeking comment Friday. The public defender's office has not been formally appointed to represent Eaton at this time.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 16. If convicted, Eaton could face life in prison.
In a statement, Racine County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy John Hanrahan, who has been involved in the investigation since 1997, said, “Robert Creek is an exceptional man who did everything possible to get help for his daughter. He desperately reached out to DCFS to help Amber. Not only was the care and security they provided her extraordinarily inadequate, their failure to report Amber missing until well after she was found murdered is simply incredible.”
Robert Creek had tried to help his daughter overcome her drug and alcohol problems but he eventually gave up custody to DCFS in December 1996, according to the Chicago Tribune. The paper reported that after Amber went missing, he spent more than a year driving around the city and suburbs searching for her.
Following the announcement of Eaton’s arrest this week, Creek’s family asked the media to respect their privacy while they grieve.
Illinois DCFS spokeswoman Karen Hawkins told HLN that the Amber Creek case resulted in significant changes in the agency’s policies regarding runaways. She said the agency now requires immediate reporting if a child goes missing.
Hawkins also noted that DCFS now has all children photographed and fingerprinted when they enter the agency’s care.
Although Eaton is in custody, Schmaling said the investigation of Amber Creek’s murder is still ongoing. Authorities believe other people may have knowledge of Eaton and his alleged involvement in the murder.
Anyone with information regarding the murder of Amber Creek is asked to contact the Racine County Sheriff’s Office at 262-636-3225 or submit an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers at 888-636-9330.