After losing her daughter, Ebby Steppach, and son, Trevor Rossi, Laurie Jernigan leans on her faith to keep moving forward.
by Dwain Hebda
Open your Bible to any spot and within a few verses, you’ll see God at work among the poor and the sick, the grieving and the lost. But as anyone who knows scripture will tell you, the tone is very different in the first half than it is the second.
Up front, humanity dares not raise its eyes to an Almighty who saved a few and showed everyone else who’s boss. But by the Gospels, He’d stretched out His arms on the cross to embrace mankind, affixing the Holy Spirit to light life’s darkest path.
Laurie Jernigan’s story has undergone a similar transformation. In October, it will have been four years since her daughter, Ebby Steppach, hung up the phone with her and disappeared. In the months that followed, Jernigan pursued her daughter’s case with Old Testament fervor, especially given Little Rock Police Department’s initial indifference over finding her.
“I always was fighting,” she says. “I was getting up every day or staying up every night, because I had to find her. I had to fight. I had to find people to find her. I had to fight with the police. I knew they weren’t doing their job. It was constant. Fight. I wanted everyone to know who she was.”
In May, the discovery of Steppach’s remains in a park storm drain reached its one-year anniversary (a milestone that even crept up on Jernigan herself.) With her body found, the fire and brimstone finally burned out, replaced by the road back to whatever Jernigan’s new normal would be.
“After Ebby was found, I was panicked because I didn’t want her memory lost. But people on her (Facebook) page would say ‘We’ll never forget her.’ I believe that now, and I don’t need all of that anymore,” she says. “The best way I can describe it is like I’ve been a square with very hard edges. Now I’m more of a ball. My edges have softened.
“Am I going to be a person that when they arrest someone, and they go to trial, am I going to be that mom that goes to jail and visits and says, ‘I forgive you, and I want you to be part of our family and I’m for you?’ No. I will not be that mom. But I also won’t be that mom that jumps up in the courtroom and wants to strangle the person. I’m not that mom, either. I used to be. I would dream of that day. But I’m not there anymore.”
In finding a spot on the sidelines, Jernigan gained the breathing room to assess what her two-and-a-half-year crusade had cost her in health and in relationships. She’s taken time to reconnect in the here and now, to focus on the lives that are being lived all around her, as well as her own.
The investigation continues, of course, now treated as an active homicide, but she’s the first to tell you, it’s being capably run by the best minds the department and FBI have to offer. And while there’s not much she wouldn’t give to have Ebby back, she wouldn’t want her here if it meant living the life she was living at the time of her death.
“I have a full picture of where she was mentally, and I couldn’t have changed it,” she says. “She was very strong-willed. She was the last person to take care of herself. Everyone around her saw the joy and the faith she had and her beauty and her enthusiasm and the love she had. She very easily loved people, but she was the last one to love herself.
“I know where her head was at, and I couldn’t have changed that. I do believe God takes you before it gets worse, and I think things were going to get worse. With the people that she was around, the people she trusted, her life was going to get worse. She was going to get hurt. She did get hurt.”
Steppach isn’t far away today; sitting with Jernigan you almost see the girl with the radiant smile and the deep, large eyes sipping a latte nearby as you talk. Looking closer, you notice she’s not alone, that a second angel hovers protectively over both mother and daughter.
It’s the visage of Laurie’s son, Trevor Rossi, who, at age 35, died unexpectedly of heart failure earlier this year. The autopsy showed no foul play, no drugs, no drink, just a young father sitting in his parked truck. The nearly incomprehensible shock of losing a second child in such a sudden and unnatural way still has residue that won’t ever be fully scrubbed away.
“In my life, I’m just a normal person,” Jernigan says quietly. “In my normal life, I think about things. I’ve been depressed today. I’ve been crying today. And I try to move on because I don’t feel like that’s normal. Like my counselor says, ‘Just get back into your routine.’ With Trevor’s death, I’m not able to get back into my routine as fast.
“I’ve been intense. I’m not intense anymore. I don’t have to be, and people that are around me aren’t as intense. With Trevor dying, suddenly it put Ebby on the back burner. That sounds offensive to say that, but it took my focus for a while off what was going on with her. With Trevor, it’s such a shock. I’m doing OK, but I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t come out of shock yet or if I am doing okay. I don’t really know what’s real and what’s not real.”
Jernigan doesn’t try to pigeonhole her future into one cause or another these days, saying she remains open to wherever life and the Lord might lead her. She still hears from strangers the world over, people searching for their lost children who call her an inspiration, and people from all walks of life who offer their condolences and prayers.
She’s confident Steppach’s killers will be found and brought to account, just as sure as she’ll embrace her beloved daughter and son again one day in heaven. Until then, she’s left to process and understand the sharp turns in her life as best as she’s able. The Book of Laurie, as with all of our stories, is a work in progress.
“This has all taught me how strong my faith is,” she says, trying to sum up her perspective. “People say all the time, ‘You’re so strong. You’re the strongest person I know.’ I don’t want to be told how strong I am. It’s how strong my faith is. I never knew how deep my faith is.
“It’s taught me a lot about how deep your love is for your children. All of us say we love our kids. We’d do anything for them. We’d die for them. I don’t think you ever know the depth to that until you lose one.
“With Ebby, I couldn’t tell her enough how beautiful she was, how sweet she was, how much I loved her. She knew it to the core how much I loved her, but I couldn’t tell her enough. What I’ve learned with her investigation is, this is God’s grace. If I thought about it all day long and tried to muster up that pain and that fear, I can’t go back there. Those feelings are gone.”