At 18 years old, the world was Ebby Steppach’s oyster. She harbored ambitions of becoming a cosmetologist. She had friends and a personality that lit up a room and could make anyone laugh. When she started to experience some of the peer shifts that many teens run into, it was concerning but nothing overly alarming. However, matters escalated quickly, launching her family into a heart-wrenching journey that would test the hearts and faith of everyone involved.
Eyeshadow, lipstick, friends, family, and hopes for a bright future made up Ebby Steppach’s world as she began her senior year of high school. She demonstrated a bit of rebellion toward school and occasionally fought with her parents, but what teen doesn’t? However, when seemingly mild growing pains compounded into increasingly severe situations, her family was left to imagine the worst.
Growing Pains of Ebby Steppach
The year 2015 found Ebby Steppach on the verge of starting a new chapter in life. In fact, according to NBC News reporter Andrea Cavallier, with a switch to a new school as a senior, the busyness of working two jobs, ideas swirling about her future career, and the social side of having a boyfriend and peer group, it had already started for the Little Rock, Arkansas teen.
Ebby was described as a compassionate person who cared deeply for others. “She was hilarious,” her mother, Laurie Jernigan, explained. “She would not let you leave a room without making you laugh.” Ebby, with hair stylists as parents, inherited the creative gene and aspired to be a cosmetologist. She also had a flair for make-up art. She used the money from her two jobs to save for high-end products, which she took meticulous care of. According to Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, she was still a child who enjoyed sleepovers at her parents, TCBY ice cream, and SpongeBob SquarePants.
NBC News records that she switched schools for her senior year, which, naturally, was an adjustment. A new job, adapting to a new friend group, and other factors led to the subsequent rebellious push-back. Though she was described as ‘fiery,’ her attitude was far from the norm. “She was really rebelling and fighting, fighting back and storming out,” Laurie said. “It represented a complete contrast to the Ebby we were familiar with, making it difficult for each of us. Eventually, her stepfather, Michael, reached a point where he issued her an ultimatum: either change your behavior or leave.” Ebby left her parents’ house, alternating between staying with her brother and friends.
An Alarming Text Message from Ebby Steppach
Though Ebby Steppach had moved out, the decision did not estrange her from her parents. And, like the teen she was, she reached out to a parent when faced with a disturbing predicament.
Without informing his wife, Michael calmly started making plans to accompany Ebby to the police department to report the incident.
Ebby Steppach was with her grandparents at the time. “I’m grateful that I wasn’t told about that text, about what happened,” her mother admitted. “Because I know I would’ve been hysterical and rushed over. Instead, Ebby got to spend that last day with her grandparents. And that’s something that has given me solace.” She enjoyed staying with her grandparents in a room affectionately called “The Princess Room,” as reported by the Arkansas Democratic Gazette.
NBC News said Ebby departed from her grandparents’ house around 8 pm. Once she did, the back and forth with her family abruptly ended. Her family didn’t hear from her for 24 hours before her brother received a call from her. She sounded frighteningly ‘disoriented’ and afraid. She told him she was in her car, but it was impossible to know, and she didn’t even know herself. Then, once again, all communication was snuffed out.
After calling everyone who might know their daughter’s whereabouts, Ebby’s family went to the police. What would turn into years of aggravation began when they were told that a report couldn’t be placed for another 12 hours. This wasn’t good enough for the missing teen’s loved ones, and they set about posting fliers. On the night of October 26th, they officially reported Ebby Steppachmissing at the earliest opportunity.
A few days later, Ebby’s Volkswagen Passat was found. Her phone and keys were in the vehicle, as was her make-up.
Much to her dismay, the police labeled Ebby a ‘runaway.’ But her mother was convinced that if her daughter had run away, she would have taken her generally meticulously kept make-up.
Calls and Text Messages on Abby’s Steppach Phone
The Arkansas Democratic Gazette reports that two outgoing phone calls to the police were discovered on Ebby’s cell. This supports Michael’s belief that she’d been trying to say the rape to the authorities and was on her way to obtaining a videotaping of the incident on her own, a solution that tracked with the tenacious hold she’d taken on being self-sufficient.
There were also a few text messages Ebby Steppach had sent to the young men who had raped her, in which she threatened to turn them into the authorities. The family relayed their concerns to the police but were simply told that the investigation was ‘ongoing.’ Worse yet, according to Ashley Godwin of THV11, the police went so far as to suggest that Ebby had committed suicide. The response caused Laurie to throw up her hands in despair. “That’s insane. That’s when I just said, ‘I’m done.’ I just closed the book on getting more help with the Little Rock Police Department.”
Widespread awareness of Ebby’s disappearance was, on the surface, a good thing, but it led to a great deal of emotional turmoil for her family as well. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Laurie was sent Facebook messages suggesting that her daughter was alive and being held for ransom. “I mean, that alone, seeing an email from someone saying they’re buying her for $25,000 and calling her names — it was awful, awful, awful,” the distraught mother recalled.
In another instance, someone created a fake account and reached out to Laurie, speaking as if she were Ebby. “Hi, Mom, I’m okay, but I’m going to come home,” the message read. Some people claimed that they had seen Ebby Steppach on sites like Backpage advertising herself as a sex worker. None of it came to anything.
The Family Went on to Hire a Private Investigator
The family went on to hire a private investigator by the name of Monty Vickers in their tireless pursuit of justice. At first, Vickers was reluctant to take on the case due to its highly emotional nature, but when he noted the “holes left in a shoddy investigation…he tried to fill them.” Opening himself entirely to a case he knew would put his emotions through the wringer, he established a contract with Ebby’s parents for just $1 and started looking.
Assuming that Ebby’s case would be complex was accurate as it took a toll on all involved. NBC News reports that Ebby’s older brother, the last person to speak with her, died at 35 years old from a heart attack. Laurie believes it was related to the sorrow surrounding the aggravating investigation. He’d been spending his lunch breaks scouring abandoned cars for any sign of his little sister. “When he died, I thought, now he knows what happened to her,” Laurie said. “He has the answers he was looking for.”
To the heartbreak of her family, Ebby’s disappearance was condemned to the cold case pile. It might have been doomed to remain there indefinitely had Detective Tommy Hudson not been hired onto the hard case unit in 2017. Hudson was appalled at the realization that surveillance footage and interviewing of potential witnesses had been neglected from the start of the case. “Why this wasn’t done, I don’t know,” he admitted. “It was up to us to clean up the mess and start from the beginning.”
On instinct, Hudson checked the park where Ebby’s car was found again. A drainage pipe quickly caught his attention. “It was a gut feeling with all of us,” he explained. “Something was there. And I knew it was Ebby Steppach.”” Sure enough, Hudson’s Hudson’s work getting cameras down the drainage pipes yielded the results the family had been waiting on for years.
Though angry at the negligence of the former investigators on her daughter’s case, Laurie praised Hudson in this statement: ” [I]f Tommy had been on the case back then and had found her in a week, they would’ve would’ve found who did it, and we wouldn’t have had to keep living this nightmare.”
Though it might appear to some as if it were too little, too late, the FBI became involved in the case after Hudson joined without being asked. According to NBC News, Hudson eventually had to move on, and the case was left to Detective Bruce Maxwell.
Now, years after their daughter’s body was found, Laurie has surrendered her struggle upward. “My faith is so strong, and I trust that God will bring answers,” she’s recorded to have said. “But no matter what happens, I have peace. I have peace because Ebby isn’t alone. I have peace knowing neither Ebby Steppach nor Trevor are alone. They’re together. Everything else? Well, with God, I’ll make it through.”