RACINE — Amber Creek was a deeply troubled girl.
That’s something her family members freely attested to Friday during a sentencing hearing for James Eaton, her accused killer.
But she was also, a sister, a daughter, a cheerleader, and at 14 years of age, just a child when her body was found beaten and sexually assaulted in the Karcher Wildlife Area in the Town of Burlington on Feb. 9, 1997.
On Friday, Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz sentenced Eaton to 40 years in prison for the role he played in her death. That’s the maximum for the charge of second-degree reckless homicide.
Under the sentencing guidelines in place when Creek was killed, Eaton must serve at least 25 percent of that time — or 10 years — before he is eligible for parole. After that point his release will be up to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Eaton was arrested in April 2014 by Racine County sheriff’s deputies, reportedly after DNA from cigarette butts he discarded was tested and found to match DNA from bodily fluid found on the teen’s body. Eaton and Amber are from Palatine, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago. Eaton was 19 at the time of Amber’s death.
Standing in a Racine County courtroom, Amber’s family members talked about Amber’s life and her struggles, but also what they hoped she might achieve once she was able to cope with the painful scars of early childhood abuse —painful scars that she tried to bury with drugs and running from the help her parents and others tried to offer.
“One of the most difficult parts of having Amber’s life played out in the snippets and sound bites of a murder trial is that someone else gets to decide what’s important for the world to know about her,” said Diana Creek, Amber’s stepmother. “The Amber that I knew and loved was a young lady that loved big, that loved hard, and wanted so very much to be loved back … Amber was a cheerleader and she played violin.”
During a statement before the court on Friday, Eaton’s sister Melissa Johnston described her brother as a changed man, one who feels deeply remorseful for the pain and suffering he put his family through.
“I don’t know how, or if, my brother, was involved in Amber’s untimely death, but I do know that Jim is no longer that lost, angry teen he was at that time,” Johnston said.
But for Gasiorkiewicz whether Eaton has rehabilitated himself was not the issue. The issue is the debt he owes for the life he took.
“You were capable of turning your life around,” Gasiorkiewicz told Eaton. “The troubled girl, Amber Creek, never got that chance … her body was disposed of as if it were a soda can on a highway.”
Originally charged with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse, Eaton pleaded no contest on Oct. 24 to first-degree reckless homicide, as party to a crime, for his role in the runaway’s death. As part of the plea agreement with the state, the charge of hiding a corpse was dismissed, but could still be considered during sentencing.
Explaining the reasoning behind the plea deal, Assistant District Attorney Robert Repischak told the court in October that the state considered the lesser charge after the court accepted a defense motion that raised the specter that someone else could have killed Amber.
That person, named in the motion, was questioned by police in 1997 and 2015 and reportedly admitted to having a sexual relationship with the teen. He allegedly told police that the two engaged in choking acts during sexual contact, and was found to be a contributor to the DNA mixture on the victim’s underwear by the Wisconsin State Crime Lab.
Once the state realized that the history of choking and suffocation acts would come into play during the trial, they believed the jury would focus on first-degree reckless homicide, passing on first-degree intentional homicide, Repischak explained.