Thumbprints on a plastic trash bag left at the scene of a 1997 murder. An Oklahoma crime lab's project to re-examine cold cases. Cigarettes carelessly discarded at a suburban train station.
Those three seemingly random and disparate events came together in recent weeks to solve the 17-year-old mystery of who raped, beat and suffocated a 14-year-old Palatine girl, then left her body in a Wisconsin wildlife preserve, authorities said Tuesday.
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James P. Eaton, 36, of Palatine, is in custody at the Racine County jail on $1 million bail facing charges of first-degree murder and hiding a corpse in connection with the 1997 slaying of Amber Creek. Eaton is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday.
Eaton, a Fremd High School graduate, came to investigators' attention in late February after a crime lab in Oklahoma matched his thumbprints with those left on a bag Amber's killer wrapped over her head, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said Tuesday.
After the match, Racine County investigators began tailing Eaton, Schmaling said.
Court documents indicate investigators followed him from his apartment complex March 22 to the Metra train station in Palatine, where he smoked two cigarettes, discarding each along a sidewalk near the train station patio.
Investigators recovered the cigarettes and sent them to the Wisconsin State Crime Lab, where DNA recovered from them matched DNA left on the scene of Amber's murder, according to the criminal complaint.
"Today is a fantastic day to make a wonderful announcement to bring some closure to the Creek family," Schmaling said.
Schmaling declined to answer questions about how investigators believe Eaton and Amber came together in 1997 or the circumstances of her death.
No one answered the door at Eaton's home in the Countryside apartments Tuesday and neighbors said they did not know him. His former wife, from whom he was divorced in 2012 after 3½ years of marriage, declined to comment. The couple had no children, according to court records.
Eaton graduated from Fremd in 1995, Palatine Schaumburg High School District 211 Superintendent Nancy Robb said.
According to court documents in Wisconsin, Eaton's only notable prior criminal offense was a 2000 misdemeanor conviction in downstate LaSalle County for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Amber had been a ward of the state for a few weeks when she ran away from a juvenile shelter in Chicago on Jan. 23, 1997.
Her body was found Feb. 9, 1997, in a hunting area of the Karcher Wildlife Area in Burlington, Wis. She'd been sexually assaulted and suffocated.
She was found partially clothed, according to the complaint against Eaton. She had a plastic garbage bag over her head and a receipt from a Schaumburg bookstore was stuck on her arm, documents state.
Reports at the time also indicated one palm was turned up and the word "Hi" was written on it. It wasn't until about 17 months later that the remains were identified as Amber's.
Authorities later determined she was last seen Feb. 1 or 2, 1997, leaving a party at a Rolling Meadows motel with an unknown man.
Amber spent the first six years of her life living with her mother in Lake Zurich, then was taken to live with her father in Palatine.
In December 1996, her father took her to the Palatine police station and told them he didn't want her living with him anymore, authorities said. The Department of Children and Family Services took custody, and when it couldn't find a foster home for her, it placed her in the Columbus-Maryville Center in Chicago.
Chief Racine County sheriff's Chief Deputy John Hanrahan, who was one of the lead investigators in the case since it began 17 years ago, said in a statement released by the sheriff's department Tuesday that DCFS failed Amber.
"Not only was the care and security they provided her extraordinarily inadequate, their failure to report Amber missing until well after she was found murdered is simply incredible," Hanrahan's statement reads. "Amber and her family deserved much more."
According to reports from the time, DCFS underwent an overhaul in procedures after Amber's murder.
Schmaling said that despite having Eaton behind bars, his department's investigation is ongoing.
"We believe there are people out there who have knowledge of Mr. Eaton and his involvement in the crime," he said. "We ask those people to search their hearts, do the right thing for Amber and her family, and come forward."
Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Racine County sheriff's Criminal Investigations Bureau at (262) 636-3225, or anonymously at Crime Stoppers of Racine County at (888) 636-9330.
• Staff writers Jamie Sotonoff and Melissa Silverberg contributed to this story.