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Cigarette and fingerprint lead to an arrest in Wisconsin cold case

When two hunters found Amber Gail Creek's body, a plastic bag had been wrapped around her head and the word "Hi" written on one of her hands.

It was a bitter-cold day in February 1997, and the 14-year-old runaway's partially naked body had been dumped steps from a parking lot in the Karcher Wildlife Area in Racine County, Wis. Amber had been sexually assaulted, beaten and suffocated, and a $5 price tag had been stuck to one of her arms.

The gruesome discovery launched a criminal investigation that spanned almost two decades -- and has now put a suspect in police custody thanks to the help of a crime lab in Oklahoma, two Wisconsin investigators stalking the streets of Chicago, and one half-smoked cigarette.

“Over the last 17 years, we have dedicated thousands of investigative hours to bring this tragic and senseless murder to some sort of resolution," Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling told reporters Tuesday, "and I must tell you, ladies and gentlemen -- today, that day is here.”

The investigation that resulted this week in a first-degree murder charge against James P. Eaton, 36, of Palatine, Ill., had been difficult from the start.

It took investigators more than a year to identify Amber's body. The foster child from Palatine who had struggled with drug abuse and depression had run away from a state facility in Chicago a few weeks before her body was found.

Reports said she had repeatedly run away before, sometimes once a week, and had been so overlooked that the state foster agency didn't file a missing-persons report with Chicago police until nearly two weeks after her body was found in nearby Wisconsin. (The case would ultimately lead to changes in how Illinois handles children in its care.)

One of the last times Amber had been seen alive was at a two-day party at a Rolling Meadows, Ill., Motel 6 in the company of two older men. That was about a week before her body was found.

Hoping to find the killer, investigators distributed fliers, opened a hotline and sent out fingerprint samples from the plastic bag used to suffocate the girl to the FBI and criminal agencies in 49 states.

“Whoever killed Amber has kind of relaxed and settled in and no one came knocking.... I can only imagine his stress level must be rising ...  knowing that sooner or later we'll be knocking on his door," the case's primary investigator, Racine County Sheriff's Detective John Hanrahan, told the Racine Journal Times in 1998.

But there was no arrest, and trails in the case went cold.

Until late this February.

Stacy Hirschman is a criminalist at the Latent Evidence Unit of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, one of the agencies that received the original fingerprint sample from Wisconsin investigators in 1997.

During the original investigation, no one, including Oklahoma investigators, had been able to find a "hit" in their systems for the prints, officials said.

But with recent improvements in the searchability and accuracy of the FBI's national fingerprint database, Hirschman and her colleagues had been going through their old files again since October, hoping for new hits.

They recently came across Amber's file. When Hirschman called a counterpart in the Wisconsin Department of Justice at the end of February to confirm that the case was still unsolved, he promised to buy Hirschman dinner if she got a hit on the old fingerprints, Hirschman told the Los Angeles Times.

The next day, she called her Wisconsin counterpart to say that she'd gotten a hit for the fingerprints in the FBI's national database for a James P. Eaton.  

"He was quite stunned; he was silent for a bit," Hirschman told The Times, adding quickly, "He definitely owed me dinner."

Even though Eaton had no apparent ties to Oklahoma, officials there said, state investigators had managed to use the federal database to break open the Wisconsin case. 

From there, Racine County investigators immediately launched an investigation of Eaton, said Schmaling, the Racine County sheriff.

For days, two county investigators followed Eaton, whose name had never come up during the investigation. The turning point came when Eaton was waiting for a train that was running late in Chicago and decided to smoke, Schmaling said.

After he discarded his partially smoked cigarette, investigators swooped in to recover it and sent it to a crime lab, where DNA on it matched that found on Amber's body, Schmaling said.

Eaton was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and hiding a corpse. On Tuesday, he was in the Racine County jail in lieu of $1 million bail. It wasn't immediately clear if he had a lawyer.

Officials wouldn't say why Eaton's fingerprints were in the FBI database, although Schmaling said Eaton had been fingerprinted in Illinois for minor offenses. Palatine police said they had never arrested him.

“While we are proud that this day is here today, our sense of accomplishment is tempered by the pain and the loss we know that Amber’s family is still going through each and every day," Schmaling said.

He said he could say no more about the case. The investigation of Amber's death is ongoing.

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

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