Suspect pleads, but questions remain about Palatine teen's killing

 
 
Updated 10/25/2016 4:17 PM
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  • James P. Eaton of Palatine pleaded no contest Tuesday to first-degree reckless homicide in connection with the 1997 disappearance and slaying 14-year-old Amber Creek. Eaton faces up to 40 years in prison when sentenced in January.

    James P. Eaton of Palatine pleaded no contest Tuesday to first-degree reckless homicide in connection with the 1997 disappearance and slaying 14-year-old Amber Creek. Eaton faces up to 40 years in prison when sentenced in January. Gregory Shaver, The Journal Times

  • Amber Creek celebrating her 13th birthday.

    Amber Creek celebrating her 13th birthday.

  • Palatine resident James P. Eaton appeared in a Racine County, Wisconsin, courtroom Tuesday to plead no contest to a first-degree reckless homicide charge stemming from the 1997 slaying of suburban teen Amber Creek. Amber's body was found in a Racine County nature preserve about two weeks after she disappeared.

    Palatine resident James P. Eaton appeared in a Racine County, Wisconsin, courtroom Tuesday to plead no contest to a first-degree reckless homicide charge stemming from the 1997 slaying of suburban teen Amber Creek. Amber's body was found in a Racine County nature preserve about two weeks after she disappeared. Gregory Shaver, The Journal Times

  • James P. Eaton avoided a potential life sentence by pleading no contest Tuesday to a first-degree reckless homicide charge stemming from the 1997 slaying of Palatine teen Amber Creek.

    James P. Eaton avoided a potential life sentence by pleading no contest Tuesday to a first-degree reckless homicide charge stemming from the 1997 slaying of Palatine teen Amber Creek. Gregory Shaver, The Journal Times

Ending a nearly two-decade mystery surrounding the disappearance and slaying of a Palatine teen, a Palatine man pleaded no contest Tuesday to a reduced charge of first-degree reckless homicide stemming from her killing.

James P. Eaton, 39, now faces up to 40 years in prison when sentenced Jan. 20 for his role in the 1997 killing of 14-year-old Amber Creek.

Amber vanished in January 1997 after leaving a Chicago juvenile home where she had been living. Her partially clothed body was found dumped in a Racine County, Wisconsin, nature preserve about two weeks later, with a plastic garbage bag over her head and a human bite mark on her neck.

Assistant Racine County District Attorney Robert Repischak said in court Tuesday prosecutors were not confident a jury would determine Amber's death was the result of an intentional criminal act but would find it was a reckless homicide.

Despite the lesser charge, Repischak said Eaton was responsible for Amber's death.

Eaton's plea deal comes about a month after his defense team made a motion to present evidence pointing to another suspect in Amber's death. The suspect, a man who was interviewed by Rolling Meadows police in 1998 during their investigation into Amber's disappearance, told investigators he knew her and admitted to having sex with her. He said they would engage in choking acts while having sex to get a high. The man's DNA also was found on Amber's underwear, the defense said.

When asked outside court Tuesday if Amber's case was closed, Repischak replied, "For Mr. Eaton, yes."

Despite exhaustive efforts in both Wisconsin and the suburbs, the mystery of Amber's disappearance and death remained unsolved until 2014, when scientists at an Oklahoma state crime lab re-examining cold cases matched Eaton's thumbprints with those recovered from the bag over her head.

Racine County detectives keeping Eaton under surveillance in March 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.

Eaton was arrested the next month on charges of first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse.

Despite Eaton's no-contest plea, questions remain about how Eaton knew Amber before her killing, as well as where Amber died and how. There is a chance answers to some of those questions could come at Eaton's sentencing hearing early next year.

"(Eaton) has not actually come out and said 'I did this' or 'I did that,'" Repischak said Tuesday.

Eaton's defense attorneys declined to comment Tuesday.

Although it makes no difference for his criminal record or ultimate punishment, by pleading no contest Eaton does not admit to causing Amber's death. Instead, it's an admission that prosecutors have enough evidence to win a conviction if the case were to proceed to trial.

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