RACINE, Wis. – Authorities tailed a man for several days and used DNA from a cigarette he tossed away at a train station to connect him to the cold-case slaying of a teenage runaway whose body was found in a marsh in 1997, a sheriff in southeastern Wisconsin said Tuesday.
James P. Eaton, 36, of Palatine was arrested Saturday in Chicago after investigators conducting the surveillance were able to recover the partially used cigarette, Racine County Sheriff Chris Schmaling said.
Eaton has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse. He was being held in Racine County Jail on Tuesday on $1 million bail, and Schmaling didn’t know whether Eaton has an attorney. No court date was scheduled for Tuesday.
“This is a day that we have been waiting more than 17 years to arrive,” Schmaling said at a news conference.
Eaton is suspected in connection with the slaying of Amber Creek, a 14-year-old from Palatine, Ill. She had run away from a state-operated juvenile shelter in Chicago on Jan. 23, 1997. She was last seen leaving a motel party in Rolling Meadows, Ill. and getting into a luxury car that had a placard reading “mayor.” The driver was described as a white man in his 30s.
Two weeks later, a pair of hunters found Creek’s corpse in a marsh in the town of Burlington. She’d been beaten, sexually assaulted and suffocated with a plastic bag, and she had a human bite mark on her neck. Her body was left posed with an upraised hand that had the word “Hi” written on her palm. Investigators referred to her as Jane Doe for 16 months until they could determine her name.
Schmaling said there was no indication that Eaton, who would have been 19 at the time of her disappearance, and Creek knew each other.
“Eaton had not previously been a suspect or mentioned during the course of this investigation,” he said.
Investigators recovered DNA from Creek’s body and fingerprints from the bag used to suffocate her. The evidence was sent to the FBI and crime labs in every other state, but there were no matches.
Then on Feb. 28, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation informed the Wisconsin Department of Justice that the fingerprint evidence matched the prints of Eaton, who’d been convicted in Illinois in 2000 for possessing drug paraphernalia.
Once the Wisconsin Crime Laboratory confirmed the fingerprint match, Racine County deputies launched an in-depth investigation that involved the surveillance. After tailing Eaton for several days they obtained the cigarette that he discarded at a Chicago-area train station. DNA from the cigarette matched the sample recovered from Creek’s body, Schmaling said.
The sheriff said the investigation is still going on. He called on people who might have knowledge of Eaton and his alleged involvement in the crime to “do the right thing for Amber and her family and come forward.”