RACINE COUNTY — For more than 17 years the questions have remained: why was an Illinois teen killed and dumped in a Racine County wildlife preserve, and how did she meet the person who allegedly took her life?
It was in 1997 when Amber Creek, 14, of Palatine, Ill., was beaten, sexually assaulted and left in the Karcher Wildlife Area in the Town of Burlington.
But early on in the investigation into Amber’s rape and slaying, detectives were told the girl was a prostitute and that possibly one of her clients had killed her, according to search warrants obtained by The Journal Times.
James P. Eaton, 36, also of Palatine, is accused of killing Amber and leaving her body in the wildlife area in the 31000 block of Karcher Road. He was charged last month with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse.
Racine County Sheriff’s Office investigators filed several search warrants last month requesting records from Eaton’s Facebook account, his smartphone account and his personnel records at work. Search warrants also requested authorization to search Eaton’s office workspace and his work-related computers at the Chicago branch of the Private Bank & Trust Co., according to those documents.
In affidavits in support of those search warrants, sheriff’s investigators stated that a Chicago police officer told a now-retired Racine County sheriff’s investigator “that Amber Creek was a known prostitute in Chicago.”
An investigator wrote that on May 11 and May 12 of 1999, investigators
attended the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime’s regional training conference. During that conference, members of the Amber Creek Homicide Task Force presented the case.
The NCAVC panel indicated that because of Amber’s “high-risk lifestyle (as) a chronic runaway and prostitute (who engaged in) drug use and prostitution, it was very possible that one of her ‘clients’ ... had killed her,” according to the search warrant requests.
Racine County Sheriff Chris Schmaling declined to comment on investigators’ theories in the case, and on whether the teen is believed to have been working as a prostitute in the Chicago area at the time of her death. He also declined to comment or whether Amber’s killing was sexually motivated or is being considered a “sexual homicide” — a term used in the search warrant affidavits.
“I’ll tell you one thing: she didn’t deserve this. To be left here, just left like trash,” Schmaling said.
Backpack, jacket missing
In the search warrant affidavits, an investigator stated that Amber’s father and stepmother said Amber always carried a dark green backpack with her. In it she kept poetry she’d written, cosmetics and a navy blue and tan plastic wallet containing photos of her half-siblings, then ages 10 and 3 1/2.
They told detectives she also always wore a forest green-colored winter jacket with a leather-like collar. Neither the jacket nor the backpack had been found, according to the affidavits.
A couple of the search warrants sought approval for investigators to search Eaton’s personal belongings, noting that “sexual homicide” offenders often keep mementoes of their victims, such as clothing, jewelry, photos and other personal items “to fuel his fantasies.”
Schmaling wouldn’t speculate as to motives behind Amber’s death, nor on “anything (Eaton) said in our interview because this still is an ongoing investigation.”
The Journal Times tried to contact Amber’s family in Illinois for comment, but her mother, Elizabeth Mowers; her father and stepmother, Robert and Diana Creek; and her uncle, Anthony Mowers, couldn’t be reached. After Eaton’s arraignment late last month, Mowers said he still didn’t know why his niece was killed, nor how she encountered Eaton.
“On an open case like that I can’t comment. These cases are continuing to be investigated,” Racine County District Attorney Rich Chiapete said when contacted for comment. “It wouldn’t be ethical for me to comment.”
Assistant State Public Defender Margaret Johnson, one of Eaton’s two defense attorneys, also declined to comment.
Eaton pleaded not guilty during his April 30 arraignment. He remains in the Racine County Jail on $500,000 cash bond.
A pretrial conference is scheduled for May 30.
‘Sad and tragic’
Amber was a ward of the state of Illinois when she ran away from an Illinois juvenile shelter on Jan. 23, 1997, according to investigators. She last was seen on Feb. 1 or Feb. 2, 1997, leaving a party with an unidentified man at a Rolling Meadows, Ill., hotel.
Hunters found her body Feb. 9, 1997, lying near the Racine County marsh. She was partially clothed and 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. It took more than a year to identify the girl as Amber.
Seventeen years passed before investigators reported matching finger and thumb prints on the plastic bag over Amber’s head to Eaton’s, according to Eaton’s criminal complaint and search warrants in the case.
Amber’s cause of death was listed as asphyxiation. She was choked and suffocated with the plastic bag, according to the 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 stated.
Schmaling said investigators haven’t yet established where Amber was killed, whether in Illinois or Racine County.
“It’s sad and tragic,” he said. “I have a 14-year-old daughter at home. I can’t imagine if I lost her.”
Amber’s “parents looked all over Illinois. (Her) dad searched the streets. I don’t think it would have crossed his mind that his daughter was lying dead in the cold in Wisconsin. I can’t even fathom what that must be like.” He said that’s one reason why this case “has never gone cold.”
“It’s so easy to forget about these cases after a couple decades, but I refuse to shelve these cases,” Schmaling said.