The Murder of Ebby Steppach

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EARLY LIFE:

Ebby Steppach was born on March 31, 1997. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, she lived with her mother, Laurie Jernigan; her stepfather, Michael Jernigan; her older brother, Trevor; and her younger sister, Harris.

Descried as bubbly and of a big heart, Ebby was known for going out of her way to help the ones she loved. She saw the best in people and loved anyone who came into her life with a fierceness that was unmatched. Those who she loved most of all were her grandparents. One of her favourite places to visit was the beach and while there she would spend hours looking for seashells, which she would often gift to them.

When it came to her education, Ebby spent most of her life attending charter schools, before transferring to Central High School in Little Rock during her senior year, after which she planned to attend cosmetology school and obtain her real estate license. During this time in her life, she also got a job at the Foot Locker in McCain Mall, a move her family says coincided with a change in behaviour.

When she was 18 years old, Ebby started acting contrary to how those around her expected. Her decision to transfer schools had come after she began dating a new boyfriend, and while attending this new school she was known to occasionally be truant. However, her parents never addressed this with her, wanting to give her more independence. As well, she had moved out of her parents’ house before starting her senior year, living between other family members’ houses and that of a friend from her time at LISA Academy.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

On the night of October 23, 2015, Ebby attended a house party, where she claimed to have been raped. According to to a text sent to a friend, Ebby said four men had been involved and that she had felt forced into the encounter. She also mentioned it had been recorded without her knowledge or consent.

On October 24, she texted her stepfather to inform him of the rape and to say she wanted to go to police about it. During their conversation, she gave him the names of two of the men involved. She later texted the men implicated, threatening to report them to the authorities.

On the same day, it’s been reported that two one-minute calls were made from Ebby’s cellphone to the Little Rock Police Department. However, they claim they have no records of these calls having been placed.

Later on October 24, Michael called his stepdaughter and told her he would meet her at her grandparents’ house, where she was reportedly staying at the time. He received no response and found she wasn’t home when he arrived. When asked where Ebby had gone, her grandparents said she had left to go and meet him. However, the pair had made no arrangements to meet away from the house.

Worried about Ebby, numerous family members tried to reach out to her, but received no response to their messages. At around 2:00pm on October 25, Trevor managed to get a hold of his sister, who said she was parked outside his house. Relieved, Trevor went to his front door, but found neither his sister nor her car were outside. Upon calling her back, Ebby admitted she didn’t know where she was and said she wasn’t in a good state of mind.

After hanging up from her phone call with her brother, Ebby was never heard from again.

DISAPPEARANCE:

After speaking with his sister, Trevor immediately called the police, worried. They listed her as runaway and, as such, no search was conducted, despite her family saying she would never run away without keeping in contact with them.

Concerned, the family conducted their own search for Ebby. A few days after she was last heard from, a security guard discovered her 2003 Volkswagen Passat running and abandoned in Chalamont Park, at 20600 Chalamont Drive. However, he didn’t report it to police until three days later.

SEARCH & DISCOVERY:

Police searched Ebby’s car upon it being called in and found her wallet and cellphone in the front seat, with clothes, makeup and her contact lenses also present. The keys were in the ignition, the battery was dead and the gas tank was empty. At this point in the investigation, they still listed her as a runaway, as no signs of foul play or a struggle were present inside or outside of the vehicle.

As they felt the police weren’t taking Ebby’s disappearance seriously, her family approached the media to help widen word of their missing loved one. This also highlighted how poorly local authorities were managing the case.

When the Little Rock Police Department began investigating the case as more than a runaway, it was handed to the Violent Crimes Division. They changed Ebby’s status to a missing person and, along with her family, handed out flyers across town.

Searches were conducted of the park and the woods near where the car was discovered, but no evidence was found. Surveillance footage was also located about a week after Ebby went missing, which showed her car travelling along Cantrell Road in west Little Rock. However, where she was on the road has never been publicly released, nor if there was anyone else in the car with her.

To help keep the case in the public eye, Ebby’s family created a Facebook group to help spread awareness via social media.

As they felt local police weren’t taking the case seriously, Ebby’s family hired private investigator Monty Vickers, who acted as a go-between between them and investigators. Five months into the investigation, he spoke with the security guard who found her car. During their conversation, he shared that he believed he’d seen Ebby three different times before her disappearance. The first time he saw her, she was with two men and had asked the trio to leave, which they did without argument. The second time, she was with another man in the backseat of her car. The final time she was with more unknown men.

While he isn’t one hundred percent certain the girl he saw was Ebby, he says she does resemble the images of Ebby he’s been shown.

In November 2015, the family offered up a $3,000 reward for information leading to her discovery. This would later be increased to $50,000. Around this time, Ebby’s face and information were featured on billboards and banners across central Arkansas.

The men implicated in Ebby’s rape have been spoken to by investigators, but there have been no formal searches of their cellphones for the alleged video of her rape.

In April 2016, volunteers searched for Ebby, beginning in the area near where her car was found and moving toward a wooded area near Markham and Bowman. This was followed by a police search of Chalamont Park in November 2016.

During the multiple searches for Ebby, a team looking through a remote wooded area of Little Rock stumbled across a site, consisting of clothes, handcuffs, a skeletal leg bone and a shoe that resembled one that the missing girl would wear. While initially believed to possibly be related to the case, it was later determined the leg bone belonged to an animal.

To help spread word of the case, Laurie appeared on Dr. Phil. Ebby’s disappearance was also featured on Nancy Grace.

In May 2017, the case was reassigned to homicide detectives within the Little Rock Police Department. They sent out cadaver dogs to search Chalamont Park, but the dogs were unable to pick up on Ebby’s scent.

Along with the Homicide Unit, the department’s Cold Case Unit also examined the case and came up with numerous theories as to what could have happened to Ebby.

On February 12, 2018, Laurie filed a complaint with the Little Rock Police Department, alleging a Captain, a Lieutenant and a Sergeant had sent her threatening text messages, had yelled at her during questioning and had refused to update her on the case during the early days of the investigation. She submitted recordings of conversations, text message threads, emails and provided witnesses as evidence. When asked why she had waited to file the complaint, Laurie explained she feared retaliation and thus waited until it had been transferred to detectives in another department.

An investigation was conducted by department administrators and it was found there was “insufficient evidence” of any mistreatment. However, it was noted that the officers implicated were no longer with the Major Crimes Unit.

During the search for Ebby, her family looked into the possibility of her having been forced into sex trafficking. As such, on March 31, 2018, they held a fundraiser for PATH, also known as Parents Against Trafficking Humans. Marking Ebby’s birthday, every dollar raised from those in attendance went to the organization, which provides services for survivors of assault and human trafficking. After the fundraiser, a birthday party was held for Ebby.

In May 2018, the Cold Case Unit teamed up with the FBI and the Public Works Department to search a drainage pipe in Chalamont Park using robots with video cameras. They first entered the top drain, near where the car was found, and hit an obstruction approximately 70 feet down. They then went in the other way and hit another obstruction about 130 feet in. While neither were human remains, it piqued the interest of investigators and thus the pipe was excavated.

Upon the pipe being excavated, human remains were found. Ebby’s family was notified of the discovery and the remains were sent to the state crime lab, where they were determined to be those of the missing girl. The remains had been about 60 feet from where the car was discovered. While the medical examiner found a preliminary cause of death, it hasn’t been publicly released.

The discovery of Ebby’s remains came after a foul odor had been reported coming from the pipe during the early parts of the investigation. The claim had come from a family friend, who had searched the park not long after Ebby went missing. The woman who reported the smell to police felt they had initially shrugged her off, not showing up until an hour after she had first phoned in. Ebby’ family were unaware of the odor until after the remains were ID’d.

According to Laurie, she had known her daughter was dead before the remains were discovered.

As of now, the case is currently with the Little Rock Police Department Cold Case Unit, who say it’s an open homicide investigation.

AFTERMATH:

In 2017, Laurie participated in Closer to Home – Arkansas Takes Action, which was hosted by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. Her feedback, along with that of others, resulted in the creation of a handbook that police give out to those whose loved ones have gone missing.

Upon Ebby’s remains being found, hundreds gathered for her memorial service at Christ Community Church on the campus of the Little Rock Christian Academy. Instead of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to non-profits H.A.L.O.S. Investigations, which is dedicated to locating missing and trafficked children, and T.H.O.R.N., an international anti-human trafficking organization that works to address the sexual exploitation of children.

On November 4, 2018, Ebby’s friends and family planted a tree in Chalamont Park, in a move to show she would never be forgotten. The event was held by H.A.L.O.S. Investigations, which also promised to make donations to safe houses in Ebby’s memory.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Those with information regarding the case are being asked to call the Little Rock Police Department at 501-371-4829.

Image Credit: Investigation Discovery

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