Police showed Laurie Jernigan the muddy, pink Nike tennis shoe, taken from a young woman's severed leg found in the Arkansas River.
"Does this look like your daughter's shoe?"
But it wasn't Ebby's.
It's never Ebby.
Ebby Jane Steppach, 18, disappeared Oct. 24, 2015, about a month after starting her senior year of high school, becoming one of 508 people in Arkansas' missing persons database.
For Ebby's family and friends, the two years since have been filled with questions and frustration as they pursue tips that fizzle out.
"I don't know," said her mother, Laurie. "I don't know what happened to her, but somebody does."
The not knowing is wearing on those who love Ebby. When they talk about her, verb tenses drift from past to present interchangeably as if no one can decide if Ebby is or if Ebby was.
Abrupt changes in her behavior worried her parents in the weeks before she disappeared. This new version of Ebby seemed foreign to them.
Family and friends describe her as a girl who believes the best in people and loves easily.
But she'd switched schools at the start of her senior year, a move that concerned her parents and friends from her old school, none of whom knew much about her new friends.
She'd moved out of her parents' house and in with her older brother before starting her senior year at Little Rock Central High School.
Yet, the week before she disappeared, she stayed with a longtime friend from LISA Academy -- Danielle Westbrook, now 17. LISA was Ebby's former school.
On Oct. 20, 2015, four days before Ebby vanished, she sent a Snapchat message to Danielle:
"Hey, I know this is a lot to ask, but is there any way your mom would let me stay the night tonight?"
Sure, Danielle replied, "come on over, dinner is almost ready."
The two were together anytime Ebby wasn't working, Danielle said.
"There would be nights it was just a drive down the highway, and that was good enough for her," she said.
Ebby began working at Footlocker in McCain Mall the summer before her senior year, a job she worked hard to get.
That's when her mother and stepfather think they started losing her.
"That is Ebby," Laurie said, smiling and describing a photo of her daughter cuddling a nephew close.
"This isn't Ebby," Laurie said, holding up a picture of Ebby in a black and white striped Footlocker uniform, pouting at the camera. "I don't know this girl."
Michael Jernigan, Ebby's stepfather, said he was proud of her for getting the job at Footlocker, although he now believes it began Ebby's drift from her family.
"That's the dangerous part of raising kids. She had new friends, new behaviors," Michael said. "You're sending her to the lions' den."
Laurie wasn't comfortable with the last boyfriend Ebby brought home. It was soon after that Ebby decided to switch schools. Despite several attempts to reach him and three scheduled interviews, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was unable to get a comment from the young man.
Through all of these changes, Ebby would turn to Danielle. She'd go over to stay the night, sometimes as late as midnight, after arguing with her parents.
"I think she kind of thought of our house as kind of a safe place," Danielle said.
Danielle tried to warn Ebby the new friends she was making might not be trustworthy.
In the weeks before Ebby disappeared, her parents began fielding calls from Central High informing them she was truant. But, trying to let their daughter have some independence, they didn't approach her about it.
Ebby didn't go to school the morning of Oct. 21, 2015.
She was supposed to drive Danielle to LISA Academy, but Danielle had a doctor's appointment that went late. She messaged Ebby she was running behind.
"Hey, if I'm going to make you too late to school, you can go on. Paula [Danielle's guardian] said you can feel free to eat anything and to make yourself at home."
"No, it's not a big deal at all, I swear," Ebby responded. "I really didn't want to go [to school] today anyway because there's all that drama."
Danielle doesn't know what drama Ebby was talking about.
That night Ebby and Danielle went to First Assembly of God church in North Little Rock -- one of Danielle's favorite memories with her friend. Ebby had gotten her nose pierced a few weeks before, but it had healed over. She asked Danielle to help her re-pierce it that night.
"We laughed about that for days," Danielle said. "That was kind of the highlight of that week."
Ebby's ears and her bellybutton are also pierced. A tattoo wrapped around the right side of her torso reads "Every night has a brighter day."
Ebby spent that Friday night at a small party. Danielle stayed home because she didn't know the people who would be there.
At the party, Ebby told friends and family, four men sexually assaulted her and videotaped it.
"She went out that Friday night, and the things that happened changed her," Michael said. "It blindsided us."
THE NEXT DAY
Ebby told her stepfather the next day she wanted to report the rape to police. She asked him to go with her. They decided to meet later and go to the police station.
On Oct. 24, Ebby told Danielle she needed to go to her brother's place for a while. He was worried because she hadn't been to his house all week; she needed to reassure him.
The girls planned to meet for church Sunday night. They were excited at the prospect of a scheduled ice cream party.
Ebby spent that Saturday afternoon at her grandparents' house, sleeping and lying in bed watching SpongeBob SquarePants, one of her favorite shows.
She and her grandmother, Peggy Holman, were close. When she stayed over, she slept in the "The Princess Room," named by Ebby and her younger sister when they were small children.
Among the pictures of grandchildren on the room's walls is one in a white frame of 4-year-old Ebby, wide-eyed and smiling next to her sister, clutching a stuffed lamb. Another shows her on the first day of school, a beaming grin exposing a missing front tooth.
Saturday evening Ebby got out of bed to eat dinner with her grandparents. The three of them then went out for frozen yogurt at a nearby TCBY.
Bill Holman, Ebby's grandfather, remembers she recognized one of the boys working in the shop.
They got home about 8 p.m., and Ebby said she needed to go out to meet her stepfather, Michael.
"I love you," she said to Peggy.
"I love you too, and be careful," Peggy replied, the words a goodbye ritual between them.
Ebby told her grandparents she planned to return later.
"She said, 'I'll be back, don't lock the door,'" Bill said. "'I'll be back to spend the night.'
"That's the last Peggy and I saw of her, when she left."
Although her grandparents were the last family members to see her, police didn't interview them until earlier this year, more than a year and a half after Ebby vanished.
Peggy and Michael both tried calling Ebby later that night, but got no response.
Michael thinks she left her grandparents to go try and get the video of her rape on her own, clinging to her independence.
Her cellphone indicates she made two calls to Little Rock police that evening, each about a minute long. Her mother believes these were Ebby's first and last attempts to let police know about the assault she had planned to report.
Officers told Laurie they have no record of those calls, no scribbled note about the rape of a young woman, no call log tracing the seconds spent on the phone.
When emailed a list of concerns and questions that surfaced in reporting this story, Little Rock police officials declined to comment on the "ongoing investigation."
Monty Vickers, a private investigator Ebby's parents hired, said Ebby sent several text messages to the young men she'd accused of rape, threatening to contact the police.
"She's threatening to go to the police and have these people arrested," Vickers said. "That's another huge red flag."
Ebby stopped opening text messages the next night.
Ebby did connect her older brother, Trevor, on Oct. 25. She sounded panicked over the phone.
He asked where she was. She said she was in her car, parked in front of his house. He hung up and went outside to meet her.
She wasn't there.
He called back and asked again where she was. She insisted she was with her car, but didn't know where her car was parked. She couldn't tell him where she was or who she was with.
"I'm f****d up," she told him.
No one heard from her again.
When Ebby's family tried to report her disappearance to police, they were told they needed to wait until she had been missing for 12 hours.
Three days after Ebby's last contact with her brother, a security guard at Chalamont Park, a neighborhood pool and playground in west Little Rock, reported an abandoned car was in the lot next to the woods.
Two days later, Oct. 30, police arrived to investigate and determined the car belonged to the missing 18-year-old.
The gas tank was empty, the battery was dead and the keys were still in the ignition. Ebby's phone, wallet and contact lenses were all in the front seat.
Vickers said when he talked several months later to the security guard who found the car, the man said it was the first he had been contacted by anyone investigating the case.
Since then, Vickers said, the guard said he had lost video taken by a camera in his car of Ebby meeting a man in that park on multiple occasions before she vanished.
Vickers said he often followed up on reports of people seeing Ebby on Backpage or Craigslist, especially at the beginning of the investigation.
"I tried to contact the detective, the sergeant and the Police Department -- called, emailed, left messages," Vickers said. "They would not respond to my calls."
But when Vickers saw the holes left in a shoddy investigation, he said, he tried to fill them.
Vickers signed a contract with Ebby's family for $1 and started tracking the young woman's movements. He began his search with the four men Ebby claimed raped her and by looking in the woods and culverts near their houses for her body.
Hours of Vickers' tapes of interviews with Ebby's friends are stored in a closet in her parents' home.
Halos Investigations, a private Mississippi firm that investigates cases of missing or trafficked children, got involved as well, searching Backpage for Ebby and conducting a search of the woods at Chalamont Park where her car was found. Little Rock police assisted in the search, said Tina Storz, the Halos case manager.
Storz said her organization often takes on cases police have brushed off as runaways, and to her it was obvious Ebby didn't leave voluntarily.
"There are girls that do just leave, and we can find them in a day or two or a week or two, but when we're looking at four months down the road, she didn't just leave," Storz said.
The FBI got involved several months after Ebby disappeared, not at the request of police, but voluntarily. Vickers said he turned over a copy of his case file to agents after they had talked to the police.
"When the FBI got involved, it became clear how badly her case had been treated," Laurie said. "And that's when things moved into a different direction."
Now, Ebby's police case is in the hands of Tommy Hudson, a retired Little Rock detective who works on only a couple of older cases.
Laurie said she talks with Hudson nearly every day, whereas in the months after Ebby's disappearance, she talked with police only every couple of months.
Vickers' health has been declining, so Laurie hired T.J. Ward, an Atlanta-based private investigator, to start work on the case. Ward has worked on such high-profile cases as Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old who disappeared while on vacation in Aruba. She is still missing.
Laurie decided to reach out to Ward after seeing a TV series about the Holloway case.
"He's the best in the country. I have no doubt that he will find Ebby," she said.
"It's a high-profile case, and this may lead to a miniseries on a major network," Ward said. "My belief is the more people that know and are informed about a case like this if someone's missing, the better chance of coming up with information."
Ward met with police, family members and Vickers and said he would turn any new information over to the police, who are running the primary investigation.
For Ebby's parents, missing their daughter is a full-time job. They recently repainted the house, trying to heal by scrubbing the walls of memories, tangled with thoughts of a girl who once covered her bedroom door in stickers shaped like hearts and cats, and "never walked, she bounced," around the house.
Ebby Steppach (left) and Danielle Westbrook pose for a selfie in 2015, a few weeks before Ebby disappeared. The two teenagers spent lots of time together — so much so that Ebby considered Danielle’s house a second home, Danielle says.
Danielle Westbrook (left) and Ebby Steppach pause for a picture while shopping in September 2015, about a month before 18-yearold Ebby disappeared. Danielle misses her friend and worries about her own safety now.
Laurie Jernigan wraps purple ribbon around a utility pole that serves as a neighborhood tribute to Ebby Steppach, Jernigan’s missing daughter. Jernigan visited the site at Chalamont Park in west Little Rock in August. Ebby disappeared in October 2015.
News on 10/29/2017
Print Headline: Parents, friends hold out hope for missing teen