RACINE COUNTY — As James Eaton waited for a tardy train at a Chicago-area station on March 22, two Racine County Sheriff’s investigators were closely watching him.
The investigators had tailed him for several days after getting a break in the 17-year unsolved homicide of Amber Creek. New information linked fingerprints on a bag found around Amber’s head to Eaton, who to that point had not been a suspect or even mentioned during the investigation, according to officials.
At the train station, investigators recovered two discarded cigarettes from Eaton, according to the criminal complaint. They took them to the state crime lab, where it was determined the DNA reportedly matched DNA on Amber’s body. With that, a day that law enforcement and Amber’s family had long waited for finally arrived.
Eaton, 36, of Palatine, Ill., was arrested Saturday in the Chicago area.
He faces charges of first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse and is being held in the Racine County Jail on $1 million bail, Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said at a news conference Tuesday.
“Over the last 17 years, we have dedicated thousands of investigative hours to bring this tragic and senseless murder to some sort of resolution,” Schmaling said.
“Today that day is here.”
Amber, a 14-year-old from Palatine, Ill., was found beaten, sexually assaulted and slain in the Karcher Wildlife Area in the town of Burlington on Feb. 9, 1997.
Investigators recovered a number of fingerprints from a plastic bag around Amber’s head and from Amber’s body, but until recently, did not find any matches.
In February, authorities in Oklahoma notified the Wisconsin Department of Justice of a “hit” linking fingerprints from the bag to that of Eaton, who had been fingerprinted in Illinois for “minor offenses,” Schmaling said. Court records show Eaton was convicted in 2000 in LaSalle County, Illinois, for possession of drug paraphernalia.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has new fingerprint comparison technology that enabled them to make the match in this case, officials said in a statement.
Schmaling said he was proud of the arrest, though he added it won’t take away the pain for Amber’s family.
“Our sense of accomplishment is tempered by the pain and loss we know Amber’s family is still going through each and every day,” Schmaling said.
Schmaling said the homicide is still under investigation and asked anyone with information to come forward.
“We believe that there are people out there that have knowledge of Mr. Eaton and involvement in this particular homicide,” Schmaling said. “I am asking those people to search their heart, do the right thing and come forward and contact the Racine County Sheriff’s Office.”
Anyone with information is asked to call the sheriff’s office Criminal Investigations Bureau at 262-636-3225, or Crime Stoppers of Racine County at 888-636-9330.
The homicide charge is punishable by life in prison, according to Eaton’s criminal complaint. Court records show an initial appearance hasn’t yet been scheduled.
Before her disappearance, Amber had run away from an Illinois juvenile shelter on Jan. 23, 1997, investigators have said.
Amber’s cause of death was listed as asphyxiation, caused when she was suffocated with a plastic bag and experienced "external neck compression," according the criminal complaint.
A human bite mark also was found on the left side of Amber’s neck, she suffered blunt-force trauma to her face and she had “pattern cutting injuries” on her face, the complaint stated. The complaint did not state whether any DNA evidence was found on the bite mark, nor whether the bite mark matched to Eaton’s.
In addition to the fingerprints from the cigarettes at the train station, Eaton’s DNA reportedly matched semen found on Amber’s body. Her underwear was found rolled up in her pocket, the complaint stated.
What the complaint didn’t include was any reason for the teen’s killing, how Eaton could have encountered her, and why her body ended up in Karcher Wildlife Area.
Kristen Zambo contributed to this report.