While police describe Amber Creek as a chronic runaway and troubled young woman, that's not the girl junior high school friend Heather Lowing remembers.
Lowing said she struggles to make sense of how the smiling "girl in the birthday cake photo" who graduated 8th grade with her in June 1996 became this dark-haired, unhappy, ward of the state just six month later.
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"I remember her being happy. She was just a very normal, junior high girl," said Lowing, who rode the bus to Sundling Junior High School in Palatine alongside Amber. "I don't remember her missing school because she ran away, or talking about an awful home life. If something was going on, she hid it very well."
The two grew apart during the summer of 1996, only months before Amber's brutal murder. Lowing, who now lives in Woodstock, said she didn't recognize the name of the man accused of killing Amber, James P. Eaton.
Amber's violent death hit her friends hard. At the time, Lowing made a memorial photo collage of her, depicting typical suburban 13- and 14-year-olds friends in the mid-1990s.
"It's an awful ending for someone so bright and loving," Lowing said. "I don't know how she became a ward of the state. Wards of the state are little children, too. We've got to protect them better."