(CBS) — A 36-year-old man from Palatine was in custody in Wisconsin, on Tuesday, charged in the 1997 slaying of 14-year-old Amber Creek, whose beaten and nearly frozen body was found in a Racine County wildlife refuge.
James P. Eaton was charged with first degree murder and hiding a corpse, and was being held on $1 million bond on Tuesday, Racine County Sheriff’s police said Tuesday. He was arrested Saturday in Chicago, according to Racine County Sheriff James Schmaling.
“This is a day that we have been waiting for for nearly 17 years to occur,” Schmaling said.
Amber was a troubled teenager, a habitual runaway, and a ward of the state when she disappeared in January 1997, but the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services waited more than a month to report her missing.
Hunters found her body in a marsh in Burlington, Wis., on Feb. 9, 1997, but it took more than a year to identify her remains. Her body was found with one hand raised, and the word “hi” written on it. An autopsy determined she had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and suffocated.
Police said, at the time Amber’s body was found, they were able to collect the suspect’s DNA, as well as fingerprints from a black garbage bag wrapped around Amber’s head.
However, police did not get any DNA or fingerprint matches until this February, when authorities in Oklahoma notified investigators in Wisconsin of a match in a national database. Authorities then conducted surveillance on Eaton at a Chicago area train station, where he discarded a used cigarette. The Wisconsin State Crime Lab was able to match DNA from that cigarette to evidence taken from Amber’s body.
Police have not provided any details on the circumstances of Amber’s death, or how she and Eaton met. Eaton would have been 19 when he allegedly killed Amber.
Schmaling singled out the Rolling Meadows Police Department for thanks, while acknowledging the loss Amber’s family suffered.
“The Rolling Meadows Police Department has been extraordinarily generous in their investigative assistance and professionalism and support over the last 17 years. While we are proud that this day is here today, our sense of accomplishment is tempered by the pain and the loss that we know Amber’s family is still going through each and every day,” he said.
Police have asked people who know Eaton to come forward and assist with the investigation.
Amber’s aunt spoke to WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller after learning about the arrest in the case over the weekend.
“Of course I feel relief that they caught the guy,” Mowers said. “We were at a point where we just kind of gave up and said it’s never going to happen. This came as a real shock.”
Amber’s body was not positively identified until 16 months after it was found. She was identified through dental records and an online database of missing children.
Amber was a troubled ward of the state and a runaway, but the investigation into her disappearance was so badly botched it led to reforms at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
She believes this arrest will eventually bring some closure for the family.
“But right now, my questions are: who is this guy and why did he do this? And is she his only victim?” she said.
Mowers said the arrest brings back painful memories beyond just Amber’s murder.
“It reawakens a lot of things for the whole family. We’ve had a lot of tragedies in our family over the years,” she said.
Mowers’ brother died at age 46. A 2-year-old nephew died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Her own 19-year-old daughter died, and then her 28-year-old son.
“Our family has suffered, suffered, suffered,” she said. “I had closure on my children. We just never got that for Amber.”
WBBM spoke with James Eaton’s father Bill who is living in Nevada.
He told us, “I can’t believe he did it. That’s probably all I can say right now. I haven’t talked to him.”
Bill Eaton says he does not know how his son may have known Amber Creek.