Taylor Eastham choked back tears as her 3-year-old son Layton sweetly said, "Happy birthday, auntie" as his eyes followed birthday balloons released into the Hughson sky Wednesday evening. The Easthams and approximately seven other friends of Lauren Grace London gathered in Rolland Starn Park for a balloon release in tribute of the Hughson native who died last year on or before her 25th birthday.
"I miss her," said Eastham, who last saw her friend in 2014.
As the group watched 15 balloons disappear into the sky, Taylor felt a renewed sense of grief knowing Lauren would never share similar tender moments with her daughter, Kennidee.
On her 25th birthday, March 16, 2015, Lauren's burned body was found along a dirt path between orchards east of Blaker Road and south of Central Valley High School. Sheriff's investigators have not made an arrest.
Eastham organized the small celebration, complete with cookies and pink leopard spotted and zebra stripped balloons to reflect Lauren's love of animals.
As nearby kids in the park connected metal bats with baseballs, Taylor remembered how she and Lauren first met during junior high days at Emilie Ross Junior High School. They rekindled their friendship when both became pregnant about the same time. Lauren gave birth to her daughter in April 2013 and Taylor had Layton in August 2013.
One of Eastham's favorite memories of her friend occurred when the two were pregnant at the same time and went to the Target store in Turlock. Lauren was wearing a red shirt and khaki pants and "everybody thought she worked there."
Lauren's friends at the remembrance declined to speak to the Courier, saying that speaking about her would overcome them emotionally.
"We haven't really dealt with it in a healthy way," said Melissa Everett. "It's hard. You really can't summarize her in words. She was too big for that."
The two were so tight that Lauren went on vacations with her family, including Sea Ranch in Mendocino County.
Everett said she was happy to see the Courier "following up with the story" in hopes that the publicity - including Lauren's mother, Denise Donnell speaking to the Courier about Lauren's drug habit - leads to more tips and an arrest.
Everett said she was horrified when she learned that a dolly was found with the body at the scene.
"When I found out about the refrigerator dolly I totally shut down. I couldn't even think about her being strapped to that while it's happening," said Melissa. "My mind automatically goes to the worst place."
Taylor said she experienced frustration that Lauren's heroin habit took over her life and away from friends like her and family.
"I was frustrated but I knew what was happening. I've had family members who've gone through that lifestyle so it was expected."