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updated: 6/24/2016 4:26 PM

Palatine man faces trial in October in 1997 murder of 14-year-old girl

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  • Doug T. Graham/dgraham@dailyherald.comJames P. Eaton, 38, appeared in a Racine County, Wisconsin, courtroom Friday afternoon. Eaton, who is from Palatine, is accused of murdering Amber Creek, a 14-year-old Palatine girl whose body was found dumped in the woods near Burlington, Wisconsin, in 1997.

    Doug T. Graham/dgraham@dailyherald.comJames P. Eaton, 38, appeared in a Racine County, Wisconsin, courtroom Friday afternoon. Eaton, who is from Palatine, is accused of murdering Amber Creek, a 14-year-old Palatine girl whose body was found dumped in the woods near Burlington, Wisconsin, in 1997.

  • James P. Eaton is charged in the murder of 14-year-old Palatine resident Amber Creek in 1997.

    James P. Eaton is charged in the murder of 14-year-old Palatine resident Amber Creek in 1997.
    provided by the Racine County Sheriff's Department

  • Amber Creek of Palatine at her 13th birthday. She was murdered when she was 14.

    Amber Creek of Palatine at her 13th birthday. She was murdered when she was 14.

 
 

The jury trial for a Palatine man accused of murdering a 14-year-old Palatine girl in 1997 then dumping her body in a southeastern Wisconsin nature preserve now is scheduled to begin Oct. 24 in Racine.

James P. Eaton, 38, was charged in April 2014 with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse in connection with the killing of Amber Creek, a Palatine girl who disappeared in January 1997 after leaving a Chicago juvenile home where she had been living.

Racine County Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz on Friday rejected a defense motion for a change of venue, based on "inflammatory media coverage." Gasiorkiewicz said he found the majority of the media's coverage dating back to 1997 to have been mostly informational.

"This is a case that has newsworthiness," Gasiorkiewicz said. "It doesn't get anymore serious than this. I think we would be putting our heads in the sand if we think that as human beings we weren't going to follow this because it involves the loss of a human life."

One of the examples Eaton's defense team presented supporting their claim that it would be difficult to find an impartial jury in Racine County was the public funeral given to Amber Creek -- who was then still unidentified -- attended by at least 100 members of the community in 1998 and covered by the media. Creek's body was buried in a donated casket.

"I take no apologies for the citizens of Racine who showed empathy and kindness by having a funeral for this victim," Gasiorkiewicz said. "I think that shows great citizenship."

The defense acquired a list of people who were involved in organizing the public burial from the funeral home. Gasiorkiewicz said if anyone on the list ends up being in the prospective jury pool, their involvement in the public burial could be considered when determining whether they would make a suitable member of the jury.

Gasiorkiewicz directed the prosecuting and defense attorneys to work together to develop a question list for potential jurors to weed out ones unduly influenced by pretrial publicity. Gasiorkiewicz elected to defer judgment on a defense motion to expand the juror pool to include people from outside Racine County, saying the need for that was unproven at this time, and that the issue could be revisited if necessary.

Amber's partially clothed body was found dumped in the woods with a plastic garbage bag over her head and a human bite mark on her neck, according to prosecutors.

It was 17 years later when Racine County authorities arrested Eaton in Palatine. According to court documents, Eaton came up on investigators' radar when an Oklahoma state crime lab re-examining cold cases matched his thumbprints with those recovered from the bag over Amber's head.

While keeping Eaton under surveillance, Racine County detectives on March 22, 2014, watched him smoke and discard two cigarettes outside the downtown Palatine Metra station, court records state. They recovered those cigarettes, took DNA samples off them and later matched those samples to DNA recovered from the crime scene, according to the criminal complaint against Eaton.

Several people who identified themselves as members of Eaton's family attended the hearing Friday afternoon. They said they were there to support him. Eaton, who has been in jail for more than two years awaiting trial, appears to have lost a substantial amount of weight while imprisoned.

Eaton will next appear in court on Aug. 3 when the judge is expected to rule on a motion made by the defense disputing evidence related to the bite mark.

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