To them, she was the fearless, sassy friend who would put just $5 worth of gas in her car so she’d have plenty of cash for a new pair of shoes or her favorite Starbucks drink.
No one will forget how Lauren Astley was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend just weeks after they graduated from Wayland High School.
But her four closest friends want her remembered for far more: She was smart, funny, a talented singer, a loyal friend.
“Lauren was such a strong, independent young girl. She was never someone you would ever classify as a victim,” said Ariel Chates. “She just was a little spitfire. . . She lived life to the fullest.”
All four friends came home from college for Nathaniel Fujita’s trial, and three of them — including Chates — were called to testify for the prosecution. Now that Fujita has been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, they have decided to speak about Lauren’s legacy.
Genevieve Flynn remembers her friend’s laugh, which she said was more of a giggle and ever present. Chates recalls her as “bubbly and adorable and funny.” Chloe Jacques remembers her lip-synching a song from “Hairspray,” dancing around her kitchen, and getting it all “perfect.” Hannah Blahut thinks about Astley as “very funky, very sassy, very smart, and hilarious and dramatic and fashionable and snarky.”
Still, as they try to hold on to the good memories, they are also forced to cope with their grief and grapple with a crime that makes no sense.
“It’s definitely changed my life forever,” said Chates. “Little things I think about — she can’t be a bridesmaid at my wedding, she won’t meet my kids.”
The five women had only recently graduated, bound for colleges around the country, when 18-year-old Astley was killed on July 3, 2011. According to prosecutors, Fujita lured her to his family’s Wayland home, told her to park out of sight, then beat, strangled, and slashed her to death in the garage.
Astley and Fujita had broken up that spring after dating for three years. Her friends said they had not liked him, and they contributed to a Facebook thread listing all the reasons the two should not get back together.
Still, they never imagined he was capable of such a heinous crime.
None of Astley’s friends knew she was planning to see Fujita after work on the day she disappeared. Several had planned to meet up with Astley that evening, and when they couldn’t reach her they grew concerned.
As evening turned to night, Chates and Jacques got word that Astley’s Jeep had been spotted at the town beach.
“As soon as I started driving toward the beach I stopped and said, ‘Something feels wrong,’ ” Jacques recalled.
Lauren Astley was ‘very funky, very sassy, very smart, and hilarious and dramatic and fashionable and snarky.’
Early the next morning, on July 4, Astley’s body was found in a marsh off Water Row, near the Wayland-Sudbury line. That evening there was a vigil in her honor on the lawn of the Astleys’ church, First Parish in Wayland, which is near the police station.
“The whole thing is like a movie, but this stands out in my head as a bizarre thing: We’re holding these candles, our moms are there, everyone’s crying,” said Blahut. “We’re all on this lawn and it’s still light out because it’s summer and we see Nate’s car getting towed to the police station.”
Hours later, at around 2 a.m. on July 5, Fujita was arrested.
They still find it surreal that Fujita could have killed their friend, but they have not lost their faith in relationships. One lesson they will carry with them, however, is to only meet up with an ex-boyfriend in a public place.
“I am very sure to tell all my friends that break up, ‘Don’t meet up with him alone,’ ” said Blahut. “You just need to be so much more aware than you think you need to be.”
All four friends have remained close with Astley’s parents, who are working to prevent violence against women through the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund.
When the trial ended, Astley’s father, Malcolm, stunned everyone in the courtroom by walking over to Fujita’s parents and embracing them, as all three cried.
That moment was the “tragic mirror image” of what Lauren did the night she died, said Blahut. Astley and Fujita had broken up, but she was worried about him.
“Underneath her spunkiness, she was a genuinely kind person, which I think she inherited from her parents,” said Blahut. “After everything she and Nate had gone through, he was her first love. She cared about him.”
Now the four friends have to try to focus on college. They can dream of graduation, careers, weddings, and children, all the things Astley — who had looked forward to attending Elon University — can’t have.
At Wayland High, a mosaic was created honoring Astley with symbols of her life — musical notes, blueberries because she picked them with her father every summer, footprints on a beach. The center is a daisy with five petals, a friendship forever memorialized.
“In high school the five of us had a crazy close bond and it was very noticeable and very tangible how close we were,” said Flynn. “I think we’ll always be friends.”Lisa Kocian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.