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story.lead_photo.caption Laurie Jernigan (right), mother of Ebby Steppach, gets a hug from Danielle Westbrook, Steppach’s best friend, during a ceremony Sunday at Chalamont Park in Little Rock. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Over 20 people gathered around a freshly planted Japanese maple tree in Chalamont Park on a cool Sunday afternoon.

A plaque implanted on the sapling read "In loving memory of Ebby Jane Steppach, She loved fiercely."

"I want every child who sees this tree to be filled with [Ebby's] love, happiness and laughter," Laurie Jernigan, Ebby's mother, said. "I pray for every parent who sees this tree to keep their kids safe."

Halos Investigations Inc. for Missing and Trafficked Children joined together with Steppach's family and friends on a Sunday afternoon to honor her with a tree of life.

"As it grows, she will remain living on," Tina Storz, a case manager with Halos, said during the memorial service.

Halos is a nonprofit organization based out of Mississippi, according to its Facebook page. The goal of the group is to build a nationwide task force to combat trafficking and exploitation of children. The organization assists in searches and also spreads awareness about the dangers facing young people, including child trafficking.

The tree was donated by Scott Smith and Kevin Grisham, co-owners of River Valley Horticultural, and was picked out by Ebby's grandparents, Debi and Richie Steppach.

"I loved the idea of something living in her memory," Debi said.

Steppach disappeared in 2015 at the age of 18. Her car was found in Chalamont Park in west Little Rock, days after she was reported missing.

Laurie Jernigan, mother of Ebby Steppach, adjusts the plaque after the dedication ceremony for the tree planted in Steppach’s honor on Sunday at Chalamont Park in Little Rock.
Laurie Jernigan, mother of Ebby Steppach, adjusts the plaque after the dedication ceremony for the tree planted in Steppach’s honor on Sunday at Chalamont Park in Little Rock.

Police found her remains in a drainage pipe in the same park in May this year. Her death is being investigated as a homicide.

The sound of people singing along to a worship song being led by Ron Morrow, a Little Rock pastor, echoed throughout the mostly empty park during her dedication.

Peggy Holman described bringing flowers to the park every couple of weeks when Steppach was missing, only to later realize they were putting the tokens of love only a few feet from where her granddaughter was eventually found.

"It was horrible," Holman said. "But there will be justice. If not here then in heaven."

Jernigan said there haven't been any updates in the case that can be made public, but she is in constant contact with the detectives at the Little Rock Police Department.

At least twice since Steppach's disappearance, police have rescued other girls from sex slavery because they were following up on possible tips about the missing teen, as previously reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Jernigan said God has the ability to make beauty from the ashes.

"Through the search for Ebby other girls' lives have been saved," Jernigan said.

Storz said Steppach's death was also a wake-up call for the city of Little Rock.

"It woke up law enforcement," Storz said. "They learned not every missing child is a runaway."

Storz also announced the organization would be naming a safe house for young women in honor of Steppach.

"It is something we can do to keep her name going," Storz said.

Jernigan said her daughter wrote a few weeks before her disappearance that her goal was to leave the world better than she found it and to have people she didn't know to remember her when she died.

"She loved children and having this tree here at the playground seems perfect. I hope this tree grows strong and lasts forever," Jernigan said, as two girls played on the playground equipment near the tree.

Metro on 11/05/2018

Print Headline: Family, police still search for answers in Little Rock teen’s disappearance, death; memorial tree planted

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