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story.lead_photo.caption Laurie Jernigan (right), mother of Ebby Steppach, gets a hug from a mourner after the service for her daughter Saturday afternoon at Little Rock Christian Academy. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Before Ebby Steppach's memorial service, her mother was browsing through the teen's old notebooks and found one entry that said "goals."

She read on and saw that her daughter had written that she wanted to leave the world better than she found it.

"I want people to know about my story even after I die."

Ebby's friend Danielle Westbrook recounted the story Saturday afternoon and said that was one goal that Ebby achieved.

Authorities identified remains found in Little Rock's Chalamont Park as Ebby's on Wednesday. They found the remains Tuesday in a drainage pipe in the park where her car was found a few days after she vanished in October 2015.

The Little Rock Police Department is investigating the case as a homicide, pending autopsy results.

Since her disappearance, Ebby's story has been broadcast on national platforms such on The Vanished podcast and the Dr. Phil talk show. A Facebook group dedicated to finding her has more than 19,000 members, and at her funeral, many of the speakers referred to the attention that her case put on police procedures in missing persons cases and human trafficking.

Before her funeral, the family requested that instead of sending flowers, people who wanted to show support send donations to Halos Investigations Inc., Partners Against Human Trafficking or Thorn. All of these nonprofits work to stop human trafficking.

Until her remains were found, her family thought Ebby may have been sold.

[TIMELINE: The Ebby Steppach case]

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

"Ebby has a very big, caring heart," said Michael Jernigan, Ebby's stepfather. "We want the events that we've gone through and the way her life has ended and everything that we've gone through since then to impact others."

At least twice since 18-year-old Ebby's disappearance, police have rescued other girls from sex slavery because they were following up on possible tips about Ebby.

"We believe that there's a lot of resources and effort going into solving Ebby's case and determining what's happened to her," Jernigan said. "I believe that they're going to come to a conclusion of what happened and who caused her death."

But there was little mention of how she died during Saturday's service, other than the closing prayer in which the pastor asked God for justice for Ebby.

Family members and friends told stories about the Central High School senior's life -- how she talked a friend into helping her re-pierce her nose at youth group one night; a weekend on the lake with her nephew; and how her younger sister fooled her into going on a roller coaster that went upside down so they could do it together.

When she graduated, Ebby wanted to go to cosmetology school and later get her real estate license.

Photos that flashed on a screen during the service showed her growing from a toddler sitting next to a scarecrow with a jack-o'-lantern for a head to a young girl sitting in a tree branch, clapping, and finally to a teenager, hands gripping the wheel of her 2003 Volkswagen Passat.

The car was found in Chalamont Park a few days after her disappearance with the keys in the ignition, the battery dead and the gas tank empty. Her phone and wallet were in the front seat.

Beach scenes provided the backdrop in a few photos, reminiscent of one of Ebby's favorite places. As a child, she used to spend hours pacing in the sand looking for seashells, her mother Laurie Jernigan said in a previous interview. She gave many of them as gifts to her grandparents.

Laurie Jernigan sobbed softly as she went in for the funeral -- where most of the crowd was nearly silent for at least 10 minutes before the family walked in. Her husband, Michael Jernigan, kept his hand on her shoulders for support.

He told reporters afterward that he thought finding Ebby's body might bring the family some closure after 2½ years of not knowing whether she was dead or alive.

Ebby's sister, Harris, spoke first Saturday.

"It is a resolution, and I hope a year from now I sleep easier than I did a year ago," she said.

Harris chose the song "Where's My Love," by SYML to play during the slide show. She said that while Ebby was missing she would listen to it and sing along, mentally begging her sister to come home.

If she ran away, come back home. Just come home.

"And in a way, she did come home," she said. "Just not to my home."

Tim Lundy, who was Ebby's pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, said that before the service he asked people who loved Ebby to write down one word that described her: Happy. Sassy. Loud. Bouncing.

Through tears, Westbrook talked about Ebby's happy and loving nature, remembering drives with Ebby during which the girls would yell the lyrics to songs, even if they didn't quite know every word. Westbrook and several other mourners wore purple, Ebby's favorite color.

A few at the service were law enforcement officers and private investigators who worked on Ebby's case. Close to 10 of them stood up to a round of applause when Lundy thanked them on behalf of the family.

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

As the service closed and attendees left to hug the family members, offer their support and cry with them, they picked up long-stemmed purple irises to take home in remembrance of the young woman.

One of the final family speakers was Ebby's father, Peter Steppach, who read his last letter to Ebby.

"As I close the last love letter from a dad to his daughter, I need you to know it was an honor to know you, to spend time with you."

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
Michael Jernigan, Ebby Steppach’s stepfather, said Saturday after her memorial service that he believed investigators would eventually find her killer.
Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
A mourner leaves the service for Ebby Steppach with longstemmed purple irises in remembrance of the young woman, whose favorite color was purple.

A Section on 05/27/2018

Print Headline: Ebby's family, friends smile, cry, say goodbye; Hunt for her aided others, they say

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