RACINE — A northern Illinois man sat quietly in a Racine County courtroom Wednesday, his face remaining impassive, as his defense attorney entered not-guilty pleas to charges in the 1997 slaying of a teenage girl.
James P. Eaton, 36, of Palatine, Ill., is accused of killing 14-year-old Amber Creek more than 17 years ago and leaving her body in a Town of Burlington wildlife preserve. He remained expressionless during his arraignment, which lasted less than 2 minutes, as Assistant State Public Defender Katie Gutowski entered not guilty pleas to his two felony charges.
But sitting in a basement-level courtroom behind Eaton on Wednesday, Amber’s uncle visibly struggled to control his emotions. Anthony Mowers’ jaw clenched. His looked as if he were staring holes into the back of Eaton’s head from his seat in the fourth row.
And after the arraignment, Mowers, of Zion, Ill., said he still doesn’t know why his niece was killed and how she encountered Eaton.
“I have no clue who this guy is. Nobody in the family does,” Mowers said as he stood outside of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office along Main Street. “This guy had to know this area. I don’t know how the hell he got to that spot.”
Prosecutors allege that Eaton killed Amber, also from Palatine, Ill., in 1997. She was beaten, sexually assaulted and left in the Karcher Wildlife Area, in the 31000 block of Karcher Road, in the Town of Burlington, where hunters later found her body.
“He had to have somebody else (along),” Mowers said. “Why would he drive there? How did he find this place? That’s what I’m wondering, if it was some sort of partying. I wonder if he’s got an ace up his sleeve. He’s gotta have another perp (involved). ...I don’t understand — this guy’s from Palatine.”
Eaton’s family couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Amber, who previously lived in Lake Zurich, Ill., was a ward of the state of Illinois when she ran away from an Illinois juvenile shelter on Jan. 23, 1997, investigators have said. She last was seen leaving a party at a Rolling Meadows, Ill., hotel on Feb. 1 or Feb. 2, 1997, with an unidentified man.
Hunters found her body Feb. 9, 1997, lying near the Racine County marsh, partially naked. Her underwear was rolled up in her pocket, according to Eaton’s criminal complaint. A plastic garbage bag was over her head, the word “hi” was written on her hand and a $5 Golden Books price tag, from Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill., was on her arm.
Amber remained unidentified for more than a year.
Nearly two decades then passed before a suspect was identified in Amber’s slaying, due to an Oklahoma state crime lab re-examining evidence collected in cold cases. Racine County sheriff’s officials have said two prints on the plastic bag over Amber’s head matched to Eaton’s prints.
On Wednesday, Mowers said he questions why Eaton would have driven Amber to Wisconsin, and whether his niece was killed in Illinois or Wisconsin. He said his mother, who was Amber’s grandmother, lived in either Wauconda, Ill., or Silver Lake, Wis., at that time.
“Maybe she thought he was taking her there,” Mowers said. “There’s no way she would have been in the car with him that long. At least not without putting up a fight.
“I’m still thinking he killed her in Illinois,” Mowers added.
Amber’s cause of death was listed as asphyxiation. She was suffocated with the plastic bag and choked, according to the complaint.
A human bite mark was found on the left side of Amber’s neck. She suffered blunt-force facial trauma and had “pattern cutting injuries” on her face, the complaint stated.
Eaton was charged on April 8 with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse. The homicide charge alone is punishable by a mandatory term of life behind bars.
During Wednesday’s arraignment, Court Commissioner Alice Rudebusch set a pretrial conference for May 30.
After the arraignment, Mowers erupted at a Racine County sheriff’s investigator who approached him outside the courtroom asking for Mowers’ name. Mowers began yelling at the investigator, who was dressed in jeans and a Brewers T-shirt, and proceeded to storm out of the courtroom, down the hallway and up the stairwell. But Mowers then hugged the investigator — after he said he was investigating Amber’s death and wanted to talk with Mowers about the case.
“He stared me down in the courtroom,” Mowers said. “I thought it was one of the (Eaton) family members. He shouldn’t have come at me like that. I’m looking at a monster that killed my niece.”
Eaton remains in the Racine County Jail on $500,000 cash bond. He didn’t speak during his arraignment, which his family members didn’t attend.