RACINE — Because a northern Illinois man talked three times about needing a lawyer while detectives questioned him last year in the killing of a teenage runaway, a judge ruled on Monday that everything he told them afterward cannot be used at his trial.
James P. Eaton, 37, of Palatine, Ill., is accused of killing Amber Creek, 14, also of Palatine, in February 1997 and leaving her body in Racine County, where it was found on Feb. 9. Amber was beaten, sexually assaulted and left in the Karcher Wildlife Area, in the 31000 block of Karcher Road in the Town of Burlington.
After his arrest, Racine County Sheriff’s investigators questioned Eaton on April 5, and April 6, 2014, in the Rolling Meadows, Ill., Police Department, where he was kept in a holding cell before being transferred to the Racine County Jail. It was on April 5, 2014, Eaton’s defense attorneys say, that investigators kept interrogating him — despite Eaton talking about needing a lawyer.
“Mr. Eaton unequivocally and unambiguously invoked his right to counsel (on April 5). At that point, all interrogation and questioning of Mr. Eaton was to cease,” Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz said, ruling that every comment Eaton made to detectives after this time would be barred from his trial.
In those recorded interviews, Eaton said on April 5: “I really think you guys need to get me a lawyer cause (sic) this is getting crazy.” Another time, Eaton said: “I think you guys need to get me a lawyer cause (sic) this is crazy.” When police continued speaking with Eaton, he made a third statement: “I need to talk to a lawyer,” according to the defense motion seeking to bar his statements from trial.
Sheriff’s Investigator Thomas Knaus testified on Feb. 27 that they stopped questioning Eaton on April 5 after the third time he mentioned needing a lawyer. Prior to that, Knaus said he offered to give Eaton a phone book so he could call a lawyer.
“I think he said he didn’t have an attorney, so he didn’t accept the phone book,” Sheriff’s Investigator Keith Dobesh testified during that hearing.
On cross-examination, Knaus and Dobesh said they didn’t provide Eaton with the chance to call family members to hire a lawyer, nor did they contact the Cook County Public Defender’s Office to arrange for a lawyer to meet with him. But Eaton specifically asked to speak with sheriff’s investigators the next day, Rolling Meadows Police Detective Phil Barrile testified on Feb. 27.
During Monday’s hearing, Gasiorkiewicz said investigators’ continued questioning of Eaton was a violation of his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights, which deal with not incriminating oneself and the right to a lawyer. But he said the comments Eaton made before he first mentioned a lawyer, and everything he said to investigators on April 6, can be used at trial.
After Monday’s hearing, District Attorney Rich Chiapete and Eaton’s attorney, Assistant State Public Defender Katie Gutowski, both refused to divulge the specific comments now barred from Eaton’s trial, and those that can be used.
But it doesn’t appear that Eaton confessed to killing Amber.
During the hearing, Gasiorkiewicz said sheriff’s investigators showed Eaton photos of Amber, taken before and after she died.
“He denied any ability to recognize (Amber),” Gasiorkiewicz said, and Eaton didn’t physically react when shown those photos. “They were unsuccessful (in obtaining a confession).”
Eaton remains in the Racine County Jail on $500,000 cash bond. Gasiorkiewicz set his 1½-week-long trial for Nov. 2.
Racine County prosecutors charged Eaton last spring with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse in Amber’s death.
She died from asphyxiation — choked and suffocated with the plastic bag, according to Eaton’s criminal complaint. A human bite mark was on the left side of her neck. Amber suffered blunt-force facial trauma and had “pattern cutting injuries” on her face, the complaint states. His DNA reportedly was found on her.
Amber was a ward of the State of Illinois on Jan. 23, 1997, when she ran away from a juvenile shelter there, according to investigators. She last was seen alive on Feb. 1 or Feb. 2, when she was spotted leaving a party at a Rolling Meadows hotel with an unidentified man.
Hunters found her body on Feb. 9. Fingerprints and thumbprints found on the garbage bag over Amber’s head matched to Eaton 17 years later, according to the complaint and search warrants.