Greek man admits to murder of US biologist in Crete

Scientists have paid tribute to Suzanne Eaton, whose body was discovered in a cave in Crete last week.

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Suzanne Eaton

Suzanne Eaton was a developmental biologist at one of Germany’s prestigious Max Planck institutes.Credit: Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics

A 27-year-old man has admitted to killing developmental biologist Suzanne Eaton, who was found dead in Crete last week.

Greek police said in a statement posted online on 16 July that a Greek man who was questioned as the main suspect of the homicide “admitted his guilt and today he will be brought to justice”. Forensic evidence showed that suffocation was the cause of death.

Coroner Antoni Papadomanolakis had previously told the German television broadcaster RTL that Eaton was suffocated and that the authorities were certain she was killed by a criminal act.

Eaton, who was 59, was last seen on 2 July, while on the island of Crete for a conference on insect hormones at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolymbari, a coastal village in the northwest of the island. Her body was found on 8 July in a cave 10 kilometres from the conference venue, after a five-day search, and police opened a homicide investigation. She is thought to have gone missing while out for a run.

Family members and friends have expressed their shock and grief over Eaton’s sudden death. One conference attendee has also described to Nature what happened when researchers first noticed that she was missing.

Singular passion

On a web page posted last week by the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, where Eaton worked, colleagues describe her as a world-renowned developmental biologist of singular passion, depth and breadth.

Eaton studied how particular molecules control embryonic development in fruit flies, and she had been scheduled to give the meeting’s plenary lecture two days after the date of her disappearance.

“Her curiosity and enthusiasm for discovery was infectious,” write her lab members. “She was our leader, our role-model, our mentor, our friend,” they say. “Her sudden and tragic death has left us stunned and enveloped in deep, deep sorrow.”

Colleagues also praised the work–life balance she achieved — she was the mother of two boys, as well as a talented musician and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

“She worried that it was impossible to give both her science and her family her all,” writes her sister. “With a deep sensitivity and compassion, she somehow made us all a priority.”

Conference turmoil

Meeting attendees were thrown into turmoil when they realized Eaton was missing, says molecular geneticist François Leulier at the Institute of Functional Genomics of Lyon, France, who was also a conference plenary speaker. They had seen Eaton playing the piano on the afternoon that she disappeared, and thought little of the fact that she did not attend the evening session that day, he says.

There were no lectures the following afternoon and some attendees, including the meeting organizers, began to discuss Eaton’s absence. “We hoped that she had joined the conference excursion, but when they returned for the evening session without her we were really worried,” says Leulier.

The group of attendees went to her room and found the wake-up alarm on her smartphone still ringing, indicating that she had not been there overnight. They drove straight to the police to report her missing, he says, then at daybreak they divided into search groups and began to comb the shore and trails. Later that day, the police asked the scientists to remain at the conference centre to allow them to take charge of the search.

Leulier says he knew Eaton from the international conference circuit, where she was renowned for driving lively discussions. “With her extensive scientific culture, she brought a richness to every meeting,” he says. “She asked probing questions on every subject in such a subtle, empathic and positive way.”

During her career, Eaton had also been a staff scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. “The EMBL community is in shock and mourning,” says a tribute web page posted by the laboratory. Cell biologist Kai Simons, Eaton’s mentor at EMBL, writes that “she represented a modern Renaissance scientist in the sheer scope of her activities”.

Nature 571, 305-306 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02173-8

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more details emerge.

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 16 July 2019: This story has been updated to note that a suspect is being questioned.

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