updated 06/25/2014 AT 3:00 PM ET
•originally published 06/25/2014 AT 5:15 PM ET
The arrest of Lacey Spears, the Chestnut Ridge, New York, mom who allegedly poisoned her 5-year-old son, Garnett, with salt, still has Spears’s friends reeling and wondering – Who is the real Lacey Spears?
Is she the quiet, devoted, adoring mom they knew and loved? Or the cunning, murderous manipulator who medically tortured her child to death, as authorities believe?
Spears, 26, was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter on June 17 and is being held without bail in Westchester County, New York.
“It’s almost like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing,” longtime Spears friend Autumn Hunt, 28, tells PEOPLE. “Because that’s not the Lacey I know.”
Hunt first met Spears nearly a decade ago when they worked at a restaurant in Decatur, Alabama, where Spears was born and raised.
“She was my best friend,” Hunt says. “Once my name was published [in an interview] people wrote to me that she sounds crazy. She’s not at all. She was shy and reserved, not loud.”
For most of Garnett’s young life, Spears wrote extensively about his illnesses on social media. She even chronicled his last hospital stay and announced his death on her Facebook page.
“When she posted that Garnett the Great journeyed onward today, it was a shock,” Hunt says. “If my child was in the hospital and had to be on breathing machines, I don’t have time to be on Facebook.”
Hunt says she reached out to Spears after Garnett’s death several times but didn’t hear a peep until Spears wrote to her in mid-February, wishing her own son a happy birthday.
“I asked her how she is doing and she wrote, ‘I want my baby back,’ ” says Hunt. “She said she was looking into speaking to a counselor.”
Still, Hunt doesn’t know what to think about her friend’s guilt or innocence.
“Watching her in court, I almost felt sorry for her,” she says. “Even if she did do it, normal people don’t kill their children. Anyone who can hurt a child, you are mentally sick.”
Spears’s next court hearing is July 16. Her attorney, David Sachs, could not be reached for comment.
For more on this story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday