Almost exactly one month to the day after moving out, Ebby disappeared, leaving behind her every possession, some cryptic phone conversations and a family desperate for answers.
The last verifiable actions of Ebby Steppach suggested the teen had been caught up in circumstances beyond what she could handle. The day after attending a party the night of Friday, Oct. 23, she texted her stepfather, Michael Jernigan, with startling news.
“Ebby started texting Michael that she had been raped (and) that she had already called the police,” says Laurie Jernigan, Ebby’s mother. “She wanted him to meet her and take her to the police station.”
The 18-year-old related details of an alleged sexual assault involving four male individuals, claiming one recorded the incident on his cellphone. She and Michael discussed the details of where to meet and agreed he would accompany her to file a police report. She also had one additional request.
“She said, ‘Don’t tell Mom. I don’t want anyone to know,’” Laurie says.
Ebby never showed for the meeting and as attempts to reach her failed, the family became increasingly concerned. When her older half-brother finally got through by phone on Sunday, a groggy-sounding Ebby told him she was parked in front of his house. She wasn’t, and as he pressed for her location, she could only say she was in her car and she wasn’t in her right mind.
It was the last time anyone would hear from her.
The family immediately went into crisis mode, searching the neighborhood, frantically calling everyone who might have seen or taken in the missing teenager. Laurie said they attempted to report Ebby missing but were informed by the Little Rock Police Department a person has to be missing for 12 hours before such a report can be made.
Lt. Steve McClanahan of LRPD’s Public Affairs Division confirmed that information was erroneous, saying, “If you want to report somebody missing, we’ll take that report.”
Informed as they were, however, Ebby’s family was forced to wait until Monday morning to make the report, at which time an officer came to the house to gather details. They couldn’t know it then, but it was the start of Laurie and Michael’s walk down a long, dark road.
“[The officer] goes, ‘This happened to me and my family. Don’t let it tear your marriage up. My outcome was not very good but just stick together,” Laurie says. “That was my first clue, my first whisper from God. Something’s going to happen.”
Monty Vickers is the kind of old-school law enforcement lifer you don’t see much anymore. After a 22-year career with the Little Rock Police Department and a few corporate and government gigs, he launched his own private investigative firm eight years ago. Along the way he’s had a little taste of everything human nature has to offer.
But he is first, last and foremost, a cop with a deep love and respect for his former department and fellow officers. So when Vickers got a call from the Jernigan family looking to hire him, he declined.
“The first thing I told the family was there was nothing we could do for them,” Vickers says. “We didn’t need to get involved in the investigation.”
The Jernigans had approached Vickers and his former LRPD partner Tom James as a countermeasure to what they considered to be a police investigation in neutral, that delivered more promises than follow-up or sense of urgency.
McClanahan says such feelings are common and, given the circumstances, understandable, as a distraught family comes up against the mundane realities of investigative work.
“To be honest with you, sometimes it is frustrating because I (as a detective) want to bring closure for that family. But not only am I tasked with doing that, but I have to do it in a certain way because I also have to work with the prosecutor’s office to get a conviction. You really have to strike that right balance,” he says.
Jernigan contends it wasn’t just lack of communication, but poor expertise being brought to bear, causing missteps and losing valuable time. In one instance, she claims to have brought all of Ebby’s phone records to the station because the police didn’t have them and therefore hadn’t been following up on them. At another juncture, she discovered the detectives didn’t have the technical expertise to decipher Ebby’s phone and social media activity.
“They didn’t know how to open her apps on her phone,” she says. “They didn’t know how to unlock her phone. They didn’t know how to get into Instagram. Same way with Twitter. Same with Facebook.”
Jernigan found, and offered to pay for, an IT expert to handle the task, only to be told the investigation would not accept such services. She began to feel as though she was talking through a steel door.
“It was intimidation of, ‘You’re trying to jump into this. There’s no way we’re going to let this happen,’” she says.
“You know, ‘We will go to any lengths not to let you get involved in our investigation.’”
Listening to the family’s complaints, Vickers thought he could be of use after all, as a conduit between the Jernigans and the department.
“In my days in homicide and as a cop, I’ve seen several situations where there was conflict between the families (and law enforcement),” he says. “I thought I could talk to them down there at the police department. Well, I found out pretty quick that they didn’t give a damn what I had to say. Wouldn’t call me back. I emailed, I left messages. They basically just wouldn’t talk to us.”
After a couple of months of getting the runaround, Vickers and James decided to interview Ebby’s friends and other individuals, starting with a security guard employed by the Chenal Valley Homeowners Association who reportedly had information regarding Ebby’s car.
The vehicle had been discovered in Chalamont Park, which is directly behind Joe T. Robinson High School on Highway 10. The fact that it was out of gas and had a dead battery suggested that it had been abandoned while still running.
Jernigan says investigators claimed to have interviewed the security guard who patrolled the area, which yielded no information. Because of that, the two P.I.s expected the conversation to be mere backtracking. What emerged in the 45-minute taped interview shocked them.
“He had never been interviewed by anybody,” Vickers says. “In fact, he had contacted the police department and the police department hadn’t contacted him back. He saw the car there the night Ebby turned up missing, parked there with all her things in it. The next night it was there, the third night he called the Little Rock Police Department. According to his statement, he waited two or three hours; the police never showed up.”
It was almost a week after Ebby’s disappearance, Friday to be exact, before the vehicle was “found.” The time between when the security guard claims to have first reported the car and when police showed up is enough to degrade some of the evidence that might have been available at the scene.
Also, by apparently not talking to the security guard, investigators lost out on another potentially key piece of the puzzle. The guard reported taking dash-cam footage during his rounds and said he saw Ebby and an unidentified black male at the park on different occasions prior to the disappearance. Meaning, of course, he may have unwittingly captured a potential person of interest on video.
“Every night he would go home and he would download his thumb drive into his computer,” says Vickers. “Sometime in January, he went home and plugged his thumb drive into the computer and his computer said it didn’t recognize the device.”
Taking it in for repair, the guard was told the aging computer was fried and was advised to get a new one.
“So they just threw the whole thing away, the thumb drive, the computer. Scrapped it,” Vickers says.” That was another, ‘Oh damn’ moment.”
Another point of contention was the interview of the four alleged assailants and the matter of confiscating their phones in search of evidence of the attack. According to Jernigan, investigators did little more than ask the young men for their phones and when they refused, detectives let the matter drop on the grounds they didn’t have sufficient probable cause to obtain a search warrant.
For Jernigan, who had sought input on the matter from friends in County Prosecutor Larry Jegley’s office, this was more than she could take. In her words, she “exploded” and started firing off emails to the highest levels of departmental and city leadership, demanding action. A meeting resulted that included Capt. Mike Davis, head of the Major Crimes Division, where frustration on both sides boiled over.
“Over and over I just kept pressing, because I had so much information there that proved way beyond probable cause to get the phones,” Jernigan says. “The more I told him the more [Davis] said, ‘We’re not doing it.’ And I finally said, ‘What rises to probable cause?’ He said, ‘When I say it does.’ That took my breath away; at that point I saw I am completely powerless.”
The more time went on, the more toxic the relationship became between the department and the Jernigans. Laurie told The Vanished Podcast that in addition to the department stonewalling her, a disturbing new line of investigation was starting to worm its way to the surface. She contends that detectives started to raise the issue of the Jernigans taking a lie detector test.
Up to that point, Laurie says she and Michael had been willing to take a polygraph but that she no longer trusted the department. This only fueled detectives’ suspicion that the couple had something to hide. About six months into the investigation, the Jernigans were called into separate two-hour interviews where investigators aggressively worked the angle that Michael was complicit in, if not downright responsible for, Ebby’s disappearance.
“There was no investigation,” Laurie says. “It was just easier to say the stepfather did it. That’s why it’d been six months and they’d never investigated anything.”
The Jernigans retained an attorney, a move that proved premature as the case was abruptly reassigned from Major Crimes to the Homicide Division where it landed on the desk of LRPD veteran Det. Tommy Hudson. While not unheard of, it was not a routine move, according to McClanahan.
“That doesn’t happen that often,” he says. “Typically if you’re the detective on a case, we may let someone else look at that case but you’ll keep it. It’ll still be yours.”
“I think in the Ebby Steppach case, they wanted to give a fresh set of eyes a chance to look at it and review it. I think that was something that was kind of factored into it. And at the time, our homicide detectives were some of the most experienced anyway.”
When asked if Jernigan’s public statements on The Vanished Podcast and her constant pushing for updates and action had an impact on the relationship with LRPD, McClanahan hedged.
“I don’t know if they started off on the wrong foot from that perspective, but oftentimes that first contact somebody has with the police department or detective is going to be what they’re going to remember,” he says.
“We kind of set that foundation early on. I don’t know if it was because there were intense feelings or what. I know that does happen from time to time.”
“That may have been a factor to why they switched and gave it to a different detective, just because there may have been some of that so let’s just get a fresh start and go from there.”
Jernigan claims to have also received a telephoned apology from Assistant Chief Wayne Booley along with a pledge for a better working relationship with the family, something she said has been upheld to the letter.
“He is a man of integrity and he’s truly concerned,” Jernigan says. “And he has told Tommy (Hudson) and them, ‘You look at this as if this is your daughter.’”
AY’s request to interview Det. Hudson, now one of four retired detectives who works in the Cold Case Division part-time, was declined. Lt. Dana Jackson refused the request because it involved an open investigation.
Another puzzling development was the sudden participation by the FBI, which volunteered to assist in the investigation even though it wasn’t a federal case. McClanahan said it was unusual for the FBI to approach the department with help, as such communiqués usually happen in reverse.
McClanahan declined to comment on whether the case’s reassignment and the FBI’s involvement suggested that the original investigation was mishandled.
“[I’m not] going to trash or throw an additional policeman under the bus on something that’s already been rehashed,” he says. “If we make mistakes it’s incumbent upon us to learn from those. Again, I wasn’t in the division when this was made, so I certainly don’t want to speculate on issues that I had no knowledge in the making.”
“And I don’t think,” he adds, “they would comment on that, either. That being the commanders.”
Whatever the reason for the change, it brought about a night-and-day difference in the way the case has been handled, Jernigan says. Homicide detectives welcomed Vickers’ notes and taped interviews and communication between the family and Det. Hudson reportedly flows freely.
As good as all that is, the bittersweet reality remains that the investigation into what happened to Ebby Steppach had, in large part, started over from scratch.
“The investigators that have been assigned to it are real detectives; they’re real cops. They gotta be good at what they do or they don’t survive,” Vickers says. “I’m happy where it is now; I just feel sad that this wasn’t done in the first place.”