Wis. police announce charges in 1997 slaying of teen

Amber Creek, 14, was found murdered in 1997. Police in Racine County, Wisconsin, have announced an arrest in the case.
CBS affiliate WDJT

RACINE COUNTY, Wis. -- In 1997, investigators in Racine County, Wis. began a search for a killer after hunters discovered the partially-clothed body of teen runaway Amber Creek in a remote wildlife refuge -- beaten, sexually assaulted, and suffocated and strangled to death.

Today, they believe the hunt is over.

James Eaton, of Palatine, Ill., the same town where 14-year-old Creek lived, was arrested after DNA and latent fingerprints on the plastic bag that was wrapped around Creek's head linked him to the crime, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said during a press conference Tuesday morning.

"We've spent thousands of investigative hours to bring this tragic and senseless murder to some sort of resolution," Schmaling told reporters. "Today, that day is here."

Monday, police announced that they had made an arrest in the 17-year-old cold case, but did not release Eaton's name until Tuesday.

Schmaling didn't specify Eaton's age in the press conference, but in an email sent to the Journal Times on Saturday, he said that the man was 36, adding that he had "solid, clear, and overwhelming evidence to prove (the suspect) is responsible for the death of" the runaway.

Creek's then-unidentified body was found by a stream in the wildlife area in the Town of Burlington, about 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee, on February 9, 1997, according to the sheriff's office.

She had been suffocated with the plastic bag found on her head, and strangled, Schmaling said. Her body was left posed with an raised hand with the word "Hi" written on her palm, reported the Associated Press. It took 16 months for investigators to identify Creek.

And it would take much, much longer to identify her killer. Investigators turned over latent fingerprints discovered on the plastic bag to the FBI and crime labs in Wisconsin and the other 49 states, Schmaling said. DNA found on Creek' body was also entered into national databases, without success.

"Until very recently, no matches were found," Schmaling said.

The break in the case came on Feb. 28, 2014, when the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation contacted the Wisconsin Department of Justice, telling them that they had discovered a hit on a fingerprint from the plastic bag in a national database. The fingerprints on the bag matched Eaton, Schmaling said, who had been fingerprinted in Illinois for "relatively minor offenses."

Two Racine County investigators began surveillance on the man, and they matched DNA found on Creek's body to Eaton after picking up a cigarette he discarded while waiting for a late train in the Chicago metro area, Schmaling said.

Eaton "had not previously been a suspect, nor was he mentioned in any investigative reports," Schmaling said.

Eaton is in custody in Racine County, and a $1 million bail has been set for him, Schmaling said. He's facing charges of first degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse, Schmaling said.

Creek had been a ward of the state before her murder, reports the Chicago Tribune. Police described the girl as a habitual runaway, and state records portrayed her as a troubled teen who struggled with drugs, alcohol, and depression.

The delay in her identification and other missteps in the case reportedly led to changes in policies impacting children in the state's care.

After becoming a ward of the state in 1996, Creek reportedly ran away several times before leaving a juvenile residential facility on Jan. 23, 1997. Her partially nude body was discovered 17 days later, according to the Tribune.

Schmaling said the investigation is ongoing, and encouraged anyone with knowledge of the crime to "do the right thing" and come forward.

"While we are proud this day is here, our sense of accomplishment is tempered by the pain and loss we know Amber's family is still going through every single say," Schmaling said.

  • Erin Donaghue

    Erin Donaghue covers crime for's Crimesider.