The search for Ebby
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.
They went on a few of these drives the week before Ebby disappeared. They listened to music, mostly rap. One of Ebby’s favorite songs, a recurring backdrop to their drives, was “Toxic” by Britney Spears.
“With the taste of your lips, I’m on a ride. You’re toxic, I’m slipping under.”
Ebby began working at Foot Locker 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 Foot Locker 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 Foot Locker, 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 relationship started 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 that the new friends she was making might not be trustworthy.
“I was like, ‘Ebby, that’s not safe, don’t do that. Ebby, that’s not a good position, don’t put yourself in that,’ but then kind of that week, I quit putting such a huge emphasis on it.
“Just when I thought that she had it down, you know, she didn’t,” Danielle said.
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 did not go to school the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015.
She was supposed to drive Danielle to LISA Academy that morning, but Danielle had a doctor’s appointment that went late. She messaged Ebby that 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.”