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The search for Ebby: Parents, friends hold out hope for missing Little Rock teen

by Ginny Monk | October 29, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.
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."

Ebby told her stepfather the next day that 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 Saturday, 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 that 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 to 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 Sunday, 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.

Click.

No one heard from her again.

Danielle didn’t find out her friend was missing until Ebby’s sister asked Danielle in a text later that Sunday if Ebby was with her.

Danielle was at the ice cream party that she and Ebby had planned to attend together.

When she heard about Trevor’s conversation with Ebby, Danielle started frantically calling friends and messaging Ebby.

“When I didn’t get a response, that was like my heart was already shattered, but it fell out of my chest,” Danielle said.

She started driving, looking for Ebby in some of their favorite places.

“It was like making a mad dash for the door when there’s a fire,” Danielle said. “You can find out something’s wrong, and you run. You get scared.”

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 to police that an abandoned car was in the lot next to the woods.

Two days later, Oct. 30, police arrived to investigate and determined that 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.

The back seat of her 2003 Volkswagen Passat, registered in Ebby’s name, was littered with clothes, indicative of Ebby’s itinerant lifestyle in the weeks before her disappearance.

Vickers said that 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 that was taken by a camera in his car of Ebby meeting a man in that park on multiple occasions before she vanished.

Many of Ebby’s belongings and the interior of her car were water damaged when her parents got the car back. Little Rock police had left the trunk open while they were investigating, and a heavy rainstorm swept through the city, her parents said.

Now the clothes are carefully washed, folded and stored in a plastic container under the bed in the spare room of Laurie’s home. Michael meticulously photographed the car’s contents after police returned it to the family.

Ebby’s car full of clothes was found less than a mile from her friend Brittany Fish’s house.

Brittany waited until she was 19 to get her driver’s license because commanding a car makes her nervous. More than two years out of high school, she hasn’t decided where she wants to go to college because the thought of spending that much money terrifies her.

But she never hesitated when it came to a friendship with Ebby, whom she calls her first real friend.

The two used to combat the sticky summer heat with trips to the Chalamont pool. Brittany’s family moved around a lot when she was younger, so when they settled in Little Rock and she started school at LISA, she was glad to meet Ebby.

“No matter if you were having a bad day, if you were sad, she could make you laugh,” Brittany said. “She always was able to make people feel good about themselves.”

Ebby protected her pals, standing up to anyone who was mean to them and helping them feel better when they were bullied.

Danielle said the tough exterior, which Ebby used to protect herself and her friends, came down over time.

“To me that was one of the most important things was that I actually got to know her on a deep level,” Danielle said. “I actually got to know her and not just the outline of her.”

In the days after Ebby vanished, Danielle recorded all of the TV news stories about Ebby and watched them on an endless loop.

In the first days after Ebby’s disappearance, Laurie received a number of Facebook messages regarding her daughter. The first was a screenshot of an email chain documenting two men bartering over the girl.

“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,” Laurie said. “At that point, we would have done anything. But it played out to nothing.”

Another was a fake Facebook account created under Ebby’s name that started sending messages to Laurie.

“Hi Mom, I’m okay, but I’m going to come home.”

A similar account was created under the name of Cassie Compton, a Stuttgart girl who disappeared in 2014 at the age of 15.

Looking for her daughter, Laurie scours websites like Backpage, a classified advertising website some people use as a sex marketplace, scrolling through images of girls performing sex acts or posing in lingerie with descriptions like “escort” or offering “body rubs.”

Vickers said he often followed up on reports of people seeing Ebby on Backpage or Craigslist, especially at the beginning of the investigation.

Vickers avoided starting the case at first — he doesn’t like taking on emotional cases like this and said he didn’t want to interfere in a police investigation. He said he first tried to contact the police in charge of the investigation and put off beginning his own for three months after his first contact with Ebby’s family.

“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 had raped her and by looking in the woods and culverts near their houses for her body.

One piece of Vickers’ investigation includes a short talk with Danielle, who says she has not been interviewed by police.

“I was just waiting for someone to knock on the door, and no one ever did. And that really made me feel like the police weren’t doing anything,” Danielle said.

For eight months, Little Rock police treated Ebby’s case as a runaway before deciding to move it to the homicide unit, comprised of some of the department’s most experienced investigators.

The men Ebby accused of sexually assaulting her talked to police, but no search was conducted of their phones for any video evidence of Ebby’s reported rape, her family said.

The feeling that police weren’t helping made it harder for Danielle to recover from the absence of her friend.

“You’re clueless. You’re emotionally drained because you feel like you’ve done everything by yourself,” Danielle said.

Hours of Vickers’ tapes of interviews with Ebby’s friends are stored in a closet in her parents’ home.

Halos Investigations Inc., 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 that police have brushed off as runaways, and to her it was obvious that Ebby did not 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.

Laurie says Little Rock police refused to check which towers Ebby’s phone had “pinged” when she made the phone call to her brother, citing lack of resources.

When that happened, Laurie resorted to writing letters to the governor, begging for help finding her daughter.

Things started looking up after several months, the family says, when federal investigators started working on Ebby’s case. But Laurie says crucial evidence had been lost — any video evidence had been taped over, social media posts had been deleted.

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 over recent months, 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.

This month, Ward visited Arkansas for the first time and said he was hopeful there would be another TV series about Ebby’s case.

“It’s a high-profile case, and this may lead to a miniseries on a major network,” he 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 while he was visiting and said he would turn any new information over to the police, who are running the primary investigation.

“Please tell me where you are. I need you so bad.” “Hey, is this real?” “Ebby, answer me please, I’m worried about you.”

In the weeks after Ebby disappeared, her phone received hundreds of messages like these from teenagers trying to cope with the loss of a friend and the abrupt knowledge of a darker side of humanity.

Danielle sent many of these messages, the last on Dec. 22, 2015:

“Ebby, just come home already. This freaking sucks and we’re all hurting. So much fear and worry, and I just want to know you’re okay.”

Danielle now walks faster across the distance from her parked car to the Wal-Mart entrance, afraid that someone will drive by and snatch her if she doesn’t hustle across the concrete.

The time she spent browsing Backpage, looking for Ebby’s hazel eyes or her familiar, round face, has made her see the world as a different place.

“Backpage and all of that, it’s scary for me to look at because now I’m one year closer to the age she was when she went missing, and I think, what if that’s me? What if this happens to me?” Danielle said.

Danielle still scrolls through the ads sometimes. She visits Chalamont Park, sometimes writing letters to Ebby. She attaches these letters to balloons and lets them float above the trees, hoping they will somehow reach her friend.

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.

The couple attends church most Sundays at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, a place of solace when the burden gets too much to bear.

One Sunday, the pastor told the congregation to “choose faithfulness,” even in the face of repeated setbacks. The sermon’s subject was Joseph, a man who was sold into slavery by his brothers but was eventually reunited with his family.

The hope that Ebby might eventually return home keeps Laurie and Michael going.

“That’s how you get through it, is you help others,” Laurie said. “You keep your faith and you help others.”

Twice since Hudson was assigned Ebby’s case, police followed a lead and found other women who were sold and being used as sex slaves. These women are often drugged until they can’t remember their own names.

Globally, about 4.5 million people are being forced to work as sex slaves, according to the International Labour Organization, a nonprofit that promotes favorable working conditions around the world.

Storz has sent missing-person posters out to hospitals across the country in case a dazed Ebby shows up. Police stations get the posters in case Ebby’s body is found.

Until one of those things happens, Laurie and Michael continue searching for relief from the pain of not knowing.

“Just drop her off at a hospital,” Michael said, addressing an unknown kidnapper.

“Tell us where her body is,” Laurie said.

“If she’s alive, let her come home now. I’m not going to try to find them, I just want her back,” Michael said.

There is a $50,000 reward for information about Ebby’s whereabouts. Anyone wishing to report any information regarding her case can call Little Rock police at (501) 371-4636.

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