Oklahoma lab played crucial role in breaking case

Updated 4/8/2014 7:55 PM

Police officers, detectives, forensic technicians and other law enforcement officials have spent countless hours over the past 17 years seeking answers to the question of who killed Amber Creek.

But it was the work of a criminalist at a forensics laboratory in Edmond, Okla., that may have finally provided an answer.

In October, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's forensic lab launched a project to take another look at fingerprint evidence from decades' worth of cold cases. The effort, said Criminalist Administrator Jim Stokes, was encouraged by the FBI after the federal agency upgraded its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS.

"It's night and day better than what it had previously been, and it was previously good," Stokes said.

As part of the project, criminalist Stacy Hirschman pulled the record of prints sent to the lab in 1997 by Wisconsin authorities investigating Amber's murder. Hirschman said it would have been routine for investigators to send prints to labs across the country seeking possible suspects.

After pulling the thumbprints, which were taken from a plastic garbage bag wrapped over Amber's head, Hirschman called the Wisconsin Department of Justice and learned the case remained unsolved. Running them through the FBI system provided several possible hits. Hirschman examined the candidates more closely and found a match with suspect James P. Eaton.

"We were just lucky that we still had the (thumbprint) image cards and we were able to process it," she said.

Stokes said he could not say why Eaton's prints were in the FBI system, other than it was because of a "minor offense." Wisconsin authorities said his only notable prior brush with the law was a 2000 conviction in downstate LaSalle County for possession of drug paraphernalia.

Although Amber's case has received more attention than most, Stokes said the lab has helped solve several other cold cases since launching the project last fall, including identifying the victim from a 1978 homicide in Oklahoma and a victim from a 1988 slaying in Washington state.

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