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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/THOMAS METTHE Laurie Jernigan's daughter Ebby Steppach went missing in 2015. 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."

Authorities identified human remains found at a west Little Rock park as those of teenager Ebby Steppach, who disappeared in October 2015, police said Wednesday.

The announcement comes a day after authorities found the human remains in a drainage pipe at Chalamont Park, where her car was found days after the 18-year-old Little Rock Central High School senior disappeared.

Little Rock police said in a video posted Wednesday on social media that the state Crime Laboratory had identified the remains as Steppach's. Lt. Michael Ford, a Police Department spokesman, said the agency would not have further comment Wednesday. Police, in the video, did not reveal the cause of death.

A representative for the family posted a statement Wednesday night thanking the FBI, Little Rock cold case detectives, private investigator Monty Vickers and others -- including the people in that group who publicized the case -- for helping find Steppach.

"Ebby's story over the past 30+ months has touched many lives," the statement said. "Many have seen the beauty in her eyes that revealed a deep passion and care for others."

Key details of her death remain either unclear to authorities or unknown to the public, including the time and location of her disappearance. In late 2016, authorities searched Chalamont Park, at 20600 Chalamont Drive -- where the remains were found Tuesday -- in connection with her disappearance. That search did not yield additional clues in the case, police reported.

Her family has used her disappearance as an occasion to speak out nationally about the issues of human trafficking and missing persons investigations. For the family, the past 2½ years have been marked by tips in the case that fizzled into nothing, messages sent from fake social media accounts claiming to be Steppach, and searches on Backpage or Craigslist for the girl they thought might have been trafficked.

More than 19,000 people from across the United States and around the world joined the "Official: Find Ebby Steppach," Facebook page. They've posted messages of support and let the family know that they have been looking for the missing teenager who loved volleyball, rap music and seashells.

[TIMELINE: The Ebby Steppach case]

"We know that there are people out there that have information about this case. We're asking those people to come forward," said Tommy Hudson, an investigator with the Little Rock Police Department's cold case unit, in the video released Wednesday.

On Tuesday, police said Steppach's disappearance remained a missing persons case. It was unclear Wednesday evening if police will now investigate her death as a homicide.

Speaking Tuesday outside the crime scene tape at Chalamont Park, Little Rock police spokesman Steve Moore said the city's Public Works Department raised the drainage pipe that ran in the park, and the remains were discovered.

Members of the Pulaski County coroner's office and an FBI evidence response team, along with Little Rock police, were at the scene Tuesday, he said.

In the video, Hudson said investigators with the cold case unit came up with several possibilities about what led to Steppach's disappearance. Police, he said, decided to search the piping and drainage system at the park, close to where Steppach's car was found in 2015.

Investigators sent robots with video cameras into the drains, he said. Starting from the drain near where Steppach's Volkswagen Passat was found, they discovered an obstruction 70 feet away, he reported.

On the other side of the drain, authorities used the same robots and located another obstruction, Hudson said.

"Neither one of these obstructions were human remains, but they piqued our interest that we had an obstruction from 70 feet from the top, from 130 feet from the bottom," he reported in the social media video.

Afterward, a decision was made to excavate the area to see what was inside the pipe, he said. Investigators with the cold case unit found human remains when the pipe was opened, he said.

Authorities, he said, also found "new evidence" inside the piping system.

The last time anyone in her family saw Steppach, she had just started her senior year at Little Rock Central High School. She wanted to become a makeup artist, maybe get her real estate license when she graduated, her mother said in an earlier interview.

Over the few past years, Steppach's family members said they believed she may have been sold to be used as a sex slave. During the course of the investigation, Hudson followed two tips in the search for Steppach that led police to finding other girls who were being held captive, her mother, Laurie Jernigan, said in an earlier interview.

"It is only fitting that the search to find Ebby has sparked open conversations and brought a heightened awareness to missing children and young adults, the existence of sex trafficking, along with the need for improved policies and processes within the law enforcement community in these areas," the family's statement released Wednesday reads. "Her story has touched many in ways that she could not have ever imagined."

[IN-DEPTH LOOK: Story, photos, audio on the search for Ebby Steppach]

A memorial to Steppach, with a photo of her smiling at the camera, surrounds a light pole at Chalamont Park. Her family and friends have visited the site intermittently over the years. One friend told a reporter in an earlier interview that she drove out to the park a few times, sat and wrote notes to Steppach.

Steppach's funeral is set for Saturday.

"God answered the family's prayers to find Ebby," the family's statement read.

Ebby Steppach

Metro on 05/24/2018

Print Headline: Remains in pipe are missing teen's

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