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Discarded Cigarette Breaks Open Cold Case of Runaway Murdered in 1997

A cigarette carelessly tossed away at a train station cracked open an ice-cold case: the 1997 murder of a 14-year-old Wisconsin runaway.

The rape and slaying of Amber Gail Creek went unsolved for more than 17 years because even though police collected fingerprints and DNA from the crime scene, they never found a match.

That changed two months ago when Racine County sheriff's investigators learned that a state database had linked the latest prints on a plastic bag over Creel's head to a Palatine, Ill., man named James P. Eaton, officials said.

Police began tailing Eaton, whose fingerprints wound up in the system for minor infractions. They were nearby when the 36-year-old flicked away a partially smoke cigarette as he waited for a train that was late, authorities said.

DNA obtained from the cigarette matched the genetic material covered from Creek, and Eaton has been charged with first-degree homicide and hiding a corpse.

"Today is a wonderful day," Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said at a Tuesday briefing on the case.

"This is a day we have been waiting for for nearly 17 years."

Police Make Arrest in Teen's 1997 Death 1:43

Creek ran away from a state-run juvenile shelter in Chicago on Jan. 23, 1997, and was last seen leaving a party at a Motel 6 in Rolling Meadows, Ill., and getting into a luxury car with a placard reading "mayor."

Her body was found a couple of weeks later in a Racine County marsh — a plastic bag over the head and the word "Hi" written on the back of an upraised hand — but it took more than a year to identfy.

Police said she had been sexually assaulted, strangled and suffocated.

James P. Eaton
James P. Eaton Racine County Sheriff's Office / VIA NBC Chicago

The arrest of Eaton, who is being held in lieu of $1 million bail, came just a day after another Wisconsin sheriff announced a big break in a different cold case: the 1990 killing of Berit Beck, who disappeared on a road trip and was found dumped in a ditch six weeks later.

Police released a search warrant affidavit that revealed they have tied physical evidence from Beck's van to a trucker, Dennis Brantner, 60, of Kenosha, Wis. He has not been arrested and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.