The Palatine man responsible for the 1997 killing of 14-year-old Amber Creek was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 40 years in prison in a Wisconsin courtroom Friday afternoon after four relatives told the judge how deeply losing her had hurt them.
James P. Eaton, 39, was charged with the murder of the Palatine teen in 2014 after his fingerprints and DNA were linked to her corpse, but last October Eaton pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of reckless homicide.
Racine County Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz said Eaton was responsible for Amber's brutal death and that any sentence less than the maximum would be a slight not only to Amber but to humanity itself.
Amber's stepmother, Diana L. Creek, said the Amber she knew was a child with a big heart and a beautiful singing voice who loved cheerleading. Diana Creek said Amber was abused at a young age and that her family tried to get her the help she needed.
"I remember one psychiatrist saying, 'We need to keep her safe until she has the ability to process her pain,'" Diana Creek said.
Under the advice of experts, Amber was put in a juvenile home in Chicago. She ran away several times in the weeks leading up to her encounter with Eaton and her death.
"I remember talking to her on the phone and her telling me it's easier to be high, homeless and on the run than it was to be sober and face her pain," Diana Creek said.
But Eaton's sister, Melissa H. Johnston, pleaded for mercy, saying her brother had a hard upbringing and is not the violent teenager that he used to be.
Johnston, who lives near Rockford, said their mother raised them on her own while suffering from alcoholism. She said her brother was bullied and eventually became angry and confrontational and threatened to kill himself. She said he fell in with a bad crowd, which made it difficult to have a relationship with him, but that he had changed as an adult.
Johnston's sentiment was echoed by Eaton's defense attorney, Katie Gutowski, who said a maximum penalty would be too harsh because it would not acknowledge the dramatic change that Eaton has made in his life over the last 20 years.
And Eaton spoke for himself for the first time since being arrested in April 2014.
"All I can say is how sorry I am for what happened," Eaton said before asking Gasiorkiewicz to "consider the whole of my life and what I've become."
Gasiorkiewicz strongly rejected the argument that Eaton deserved a lesser sentence because he had reformed in the time since he killed Amber.
"You were capable of turning your life around," Gasiorkiewicz told Eaton. "Amber Creek never got that chance."
Gasiorkiewicz went over the details of Amber's killing, including how her half-naked body had been found dumped in a Racine County, Wisconsin, nature preserve. There were cuts on her face, a bite mark on her neck and DNA evidence inside her. Her head was covered by a black garbage bag on which Eaton's fingerprints were found.
"It hurts how her body was disposed of, like a soda can on the highway," Gasiorkiewicz said, calling Eaton's actions an insult to Amber's humanity.
Despite all the details that have been unearthed in the nearly 20 years since her body was found in February 1997, many crucial facts aren't known, such as how Eaton and Amber came to meet, where she was killed and who else, if anyone, was involved.
The charge against Eaton was reduced last year after his defense team presented evidence pointing to another suspect. That man, who was interviewed by Rolling Meadows police in 1998 during their investigation into Amber's disappearance, admitted to investigators having sex with her while engaging in choking acts, according to court filings. The man's DNA was found on Amber's underwear, the defense said.
Although it makes no difference for his criminal record or ultimate punishment, the no contest plea means Eaton did not admit to causing Amber's death. Instead, it's an admission that prosecutors had enough evidence to win a conviction.