A Whatcom County inmate’s confession led police to the remains of a longtime Bellingham resident in a dirt lot in suburban Phoenix, according to police.
Detectives believe Darren Van Eaton, 54, was killed and buried in a vacant lot behind an Arizona drugstore in December 2014.
No one reported him missing, however, until Craig Michael Strong spoke with police at the Whatcom County Jail months ago on the day he was arraigned on local charges of possessing stolen guns and violating a no-contact order.
So far police have withheld many details of that alleged confession, except to say Strong, 22, admitted to “being present” for the crime. He told police where they would find the body, and human remains were excavated near a CVS Pharmacy at 4275 W. Thomas Road in Phoenix, said Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, a police spokeswoman.
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Sometime after the death someone began stealing $1,500-a-month bank deposits that Van Eaton received for Social Security, according to Phoenix police. Authorities connected the thefts to Teniqua Reed, 24, of Phoenix, who lived across the street from the dirt lot. Police booked her into the Maricopa County Jail on Tuesday to face charges of fraud and theft. Her husband George Reed, 48, who was already in jail on drug charges, was also linked to the scheme, according to Phoenix media reports.
The Reeds remained behind bars as of Thursday, according to the Maricopa County Jail. Authorities in Phoenix continue to investigate the circumstances of Van Eaton’s death.
Police didn’t release information on a possible motive.
Court records suggest Van Eaton struggled with substance abuse and mental illness when he lived in Washington state, leading to felony charges for swinging an ax at Sudden Valley security guards in 2007; threatening to kill doctors who took away his opiate prescription in 2009; and having a gun as a felon in 2010, when he threatened to kill himself. (The latter charge was reduced to a misdemeanor).
His wife of 26 years separated from him when he was arrested again in September 2012. Nearly two years later, in a divorce case where Van Eaton was absent, the woman told the court she didn’t know Van Eaton’s whereabouts.
According to Oregon court records, Van Eaton traveled to Astoria and Portland, where he was arrested for petty crimes in the summer before his death. Municipal court records show he returned to Whatcom County – ticketed for driving offenses in Blaine – in August 2014. Police have not said when he arrived in Arizona. After two years in the dirt his remains had decomposed, but so far the evidence appears “consistent with homicide,” according to Phoenix police.
Strong, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in February to the firearm charges that landed him in jail, within a week of his arraignment, according to court records. Guards shuttled him to a state prison near Aberdeen, and once he’s done serving his 13-month sentence, Arizona authorities plan to extradite him to Phoenix to face charges.
Strong had no violent felony record as an adult, court records indicate. Phoenix police said he knew Van Eaton, and Bellingham police records reveal Strong’s mother and Van Eaton were ticketed for shoplifting together in 2013.