17 months after the body of 14-year-old Amber Gail Creek was found in Karcher marsh, Detective John Hanrahan is confident he will find the person who killed her
BY JEFF WILFORD
photo by Liana j. Cooper
Detective John Hanrahan's new office is a small, Spartan room in the back of the Racine County Sheriff's Department.
On the walls are photographs of a young girl, her face beaten and disfigured; photographs of a crime scene and a blank timeline. On a shelf are binders filled with about 1,500 pages of investigative reports.
On the desk is a phone which rings a couple of times a day with information about the case. One of those calls, Hanrahan hopes, will be the one that cracks the case wide open.
This is the epicenter of a murder investigation.
The phone rings. Hanrahan answers: “Amber Creek Homicide Task Force."
It is Thursday, July 2, 17 months after the body of a young girl was found in Karcher Wildlife Area; one week after the girl was identified as Amber Gail Creek, who was 14 when she died, of Palatine, Ill.; one day after the task force to catch her killer was assembled.
“Today's her birthday, by the way," Hanrahan adds. “Sixteen, she would've been."
Amber's body was found in Karcher Wildlife Area on Feb. 9, 1997. She was nude from the waist down. She had been beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and had a plastic bag put over her head.
The killer seemed to taunt investigators. The girl's body appeared posed when it was found and the word “hi" was written in ink on one of her hands. A $5 price tag, from a Golden Books store in Schaumburg, Ill., was stuck to her arm.
Little was known about her at the time. Who she was, where she came from, where or when she died were all mysteries. Investigators dubbed her Jane Doe.
Normally, the colder a trail gets on a homicide investigation, the less likely it is to be solved.
But this is no ordinary homicide investigation. Investigators from the sheriff's department, Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation, the Chicago and Milwaukee offices of the FBI, the Illinois State Police, Cook County Sheriff's Department, and police departments in Palatine and Chicago are assigned to the task force.
A telephone hotline (636-3842) has been established and a $2,500 award set up for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Amber's killer.
Coordinating the efforts of the task force is Hanrahan. He takes information from the hotline, fills it in on FBI forms in triplicate then assigns new leads to different investigators working the case. Finding Amber's killer has Hanrahan's complete and undivided attention.
“This is, uh, my daily assignment. Sometimes more than daily," Hanrahan says. “Well, we're putting in a lot of hours on this, especially now that she's identified. I know Joyce (Detective Singer) and I have been putting in 10-12 hour days on this."
Hanrahan is a relentless detective who enjoys the hunt. Long days are not unusual. He sometimes takes his work home it was at home that he found Amber's name on an Internet site of missing persons.
Hanrahan was also instrumental in finding a possible link between a Milwaukee man and the decades-old serial killings of three women whose bodies were found in Racine County in the mid-1970s.
Hanrahan has been with the sheriff's department for nine years, the last three as detective. He recently received a master's degree in business administration, yet he remains a detective earning less money than he could in the private sector. He has found himself in the running for promotions, and continues to test for promotions (he's on the list for lieutenant) yet has so far chosen to remain a detective.
“About a couple of months ago, I was on the list for a sergeant's opening and I decided to forego the opportunity and remove my name from the list," Hanrahan says. “I guess the money …. The position wasn't as important to me as being in a position where I thought I could contribute a little more to the sheriff's office.
“Sometimes it can be tremendously rewarding when you can find the perpetrator of a major violent crime, or a robbery or burglary, and maybe get a little justice for the victims."
Progress is already being made on Amber Creek's case, Hanrahan says. Now that investigators know her name, they can start to reconstruct her last days. Soon, they will start filling in the timeline, which spans the three weeks from Jan. 16, 1997 one week before she ran away from the Columbus-Maryville Children's Reception Center in Chicago to Feb. 9.
New leads are already coming into the task force. On top of this, they have samples of DNA taken from the girl's body.
For these reasons, Hanrahan is confident Creek's killer will be caught.
“We've had suspects all along and we continue to develop suspects and eliminate others. There are a number of suspects now and we are developing more every day," Hanrahan says.
“Whoever killed Amber has kind of relaxed and settled in and no one came knocking, and now that the task force has been assembled… I can only imagine his stress level must be rising… knowing that sooner or later we'll be knocking on his door.