Laurie Jernigan removes her oversized sunglasses and gazes calmly into the reporter’s camera lens. A few minutes earlier, the petite blonde’s face creased with emotion, but that’s all gone now. Save for the twitching muscles in her hands, nothing gives away the stress and pain she feels. Tears do her no good now. Now it’s time to speak for Ebby.
The questions run the same course as they have in the months since her then-18-year-old daughter disappeared without a trace, but time and retelling has steadied Jernigan’s voice and her gaze. Bystanders and media remark at her composure; most can’t even breathe at the thought of their own child being taken, let alone talk about it.
But like a lot of things that make up her life these days, Jernigan’s demeanor is something chosen for her, dictated in part by the decisions of a naive teenager and in part by a predator she believes holds the answer to the family’s nightmare. In the strange suspended reality that families of the missing understand all too well, a brave face isn’t just a coping mechanism but like everything else, a strategy.
On the chance that Ebby might see this broadcast, she sends her daughter the subliminal message to stay strong, wherever she is. If the person who took Ebby is watching, Jernigan wants her steely gaze to let the bastard know her heart may be broken but her resolve will never be.
That same afternoon in late June, new billboards popped up around Little Rock with Ebby’s doe-eyed smiling face staring coyly over her shoulder. It could have been any high schooler’s senior portrait, save for the blaring $50,000 REWARD pasted across the bottom and the hashtag #findebbyjane across one corner. Something close to hope creeps into Jernigan’s voice.
“Along the way [Ebby] touched so many hearts,” she tells the press. “That’s an unbelievable feeling to get messages from people from across the world that just want to tell you that they’re praying for Ebby, that they talk to their kids about Ebby. That’s unbelievable.”
The interview completed, the reporter removes the microphone from Jernigan’s collar and walks away, coiling the cord. Looking down at the flyer in her hands and the face of her missing daughter, Jernigan’s features begin to quiver but then she slides her sunglasses on — armor back in place.
Ebby Jane Steppach entered the world on March 31, 1997. From the word go, her mother wanted her daughter to be both her own person and firmly rooted in her family and her faith, a desire exemplified by her unique name.
“I have a friend whose daughter’s name is Evvie; when I met her, she kept talking about her daughter,” Jernigan says. “I thought she was saying ‘Ebby’ and I just loved that name and I said, ‘I’m going to steal it.’ I mean I have to have that name. It’s not short for anything, just a name that I really loved from a woman that I really loved that I went to church with.
“Ebby Jane — my middle name’s Jane — I had someone tell me the other day that she has such a unique name and people grab a hold of it and remember it because it’s unusual. It is unusual and that’s why I like it.”
Ebby’s powerful name — and her mother’s best intentions — weren’t enough to give her and her siblings (an older half brother and a younger sister) the kind of domestic stability they all craved. At least initially. Ebby’s parents split when she was a first-grader and while Laurie would marry Michael Jernigan, and thus provide her kids with a steady, positive male role model for most of their upbringing, they felt the usual trauma of divorce.
“Kids, they never get over it, they don’t,” Jernigan says. “At the time, the situation was a bad situation. But when that marriage ended, it was abrupt and shocking to me and to the girls. I mean, I was 40 years old with two little girls and they wished that we were together. They wished their family was together.”
From early in life, Ebby showed a staunch independent streak. As a child, she decided she didn’t like her name and cycled through several alternatives, insisting she be addressed by them each time.
“She liked to dress up and change her name,” Jernigan says. “One of the funniest was Ebony. Ebby is as pale as this table and she would tell people in Florida or at the pool ‘My name’s Ebony.’
“Ebby was strong-willed, but at the same time there were boundaries that she wouldn’t cross. She stayed home. She was close to home. She would spend the night at a friend’s, but she would be back home. It was more comfortable for her to have friends at our house.”
School was challenging for Ebby, and Jernigan says she had difficulty finding acceptance, although that didn’t stop her from developing a strong sense of justice. While attending LISA Academy in high school, classmate Caleb Boyd was wrongly incarcerated over a gun found in his car on the school grounds.
Ebby became the vanguard of Boyd’s defense, mobilizing her classmates, spearheading a letter-writing campaign and generally rabble-rousing support for her friend until the matter was resolved.
“I remember once all that happened, I remember she was telling everybody. She and one of my other close friends were trying to get people to write statements and basically just convince the court that I was innocent, which I ended up being innocent,” says Boyd. “I remember people telling [me] ‘Man, she was really rooting for you. She was getting everybody, harassing everybody, trying to get them to write statements since you left for jail or whatever.’
“You know, that means a lot because it was a lot of people that kind of turned their back when that happened. They had thoughts about me and they looked at me a certain way, but Ebby, she stayed the same. She showed that she was a good friend.”
“She would be the most selfless person you’d ever meet. She’d do anything for you,” says Danielle Westbrook, 17, one of Ebby’s close friends, who remembers long talks about teenage troubles, driving around indulging the same musical tastes and Ebby’s endlessly generous spirit. She said Ebby had an intimidating wall she’d put up for people she didn’t know, but once she accepted you, her loyalty knew no bounds.
“After a while, once the tables turned, you saw the other side of her,” Westbrook says. “You saw the selflessness. You saw the love, the kindness. You saw the perseverance. You saw the strength. You saw the courage.”
Ebby’s unconditional loyalty to people from whom she sought love and acceptance had its drawbacks. Jernigan says Ebby displayed an “immaturity” when it came to reading people’s true motives, naively believing what people said over how they behaved.
“She was lonely growing up,” says her mother. “She loved fiercely; with every part of her being, she loved people. When they didn’t love her back like that, she did not understand it. So she was hurt a lot. She was loyal and didn’t understand it when people weren’t loyal back.”
Ebby was bullied badly enough to change schools once, which brought her to LISA Academy, and her first real boyfriends didn’t prove to be as advertised either.
“There were a couple guys that she dated that I did not think were adequate,” Westbrook says. “I did not think that they were what she needed. Of course, being Ebby, ‘No. He’s fine. I like him.’“That’s why every chance I got I told her, ‘Ebby, watch what you’re doing. Watch who you’re with. Watch who you talk to, please.’”
“That’s why every chance I got I told her, ‘Ebby, watch what you’re doing. Watch who you’re with. Watch who you talk to, please.’”
By the time she was in high school, Ebby’s independent streak had developed into teenage rebellion pulsing just under the skin. Her social circle broadened to include acquaintances at work. Her first job was at Playtime Pizza and the next at Foot Locker. Despite maintaining strict household rules, her mother and stepfather began to see the negative influence of these new friends. The irony of harm coming from something as responsible as wanting to hold a job isn’t lost on her mother.
“She worked all the time,” Jernigan says. “We were so proud of her because you want your kids to be hard workers and you never know if they’re going to be. Now looking back that’s where she started meeting people she shouldn’t have been getting to know. That’s kind of where it started.”
Once she turned 18 Ebby made the decision to change high schools, from LISA Academy to Little Rock Central. Having been in smaller private schools her entire life, friends wondered if she had the street smarts to navigate one of central Arkansas’ largest public high schools.
“When she left for Central, I really didn’t run into her as much. I saw her a couple times and we spoke, just brief conversations,” says Caleb Boyd, who was dismissed from LISA Academy over the gun incident and graduated from Joe T. Robinson High School. “I never got a look at the kind of crowd she hung around. Of course, leaving from a charter school to a public school it’s a lot that can change. The environment’s different. The peers that are set for you, it’s a different mentality.”
“Charter school is — people who send their kids there, they send them there because they want them to learn and they have strict standards set for their kids,” says Boyd. “When the kids are sent to a public school it’s kind of a free-for-all. It’s just different. You never know what type of crowd you end up with. You could end up with a good crowd. You could end up with a bad crowd. Honestly, at LISA it was just really hard to fall in a bad crowd because, I mean, it wasn’t really like that. Everyone was pretty laid-back.”
At some point, one of Ebby’s new peer groups introduced her to marijuana and the idea of moving out on her own. For the Jernigans, arguments with their daughter became more heated and more frequent. One night in September of 2015, things reached a breaking point.
“Finally I said, ‘Ebby, if you want to move out, you can,’” Jernigan says, quietly. “It was only going to get worse. I told her, ‘If you do this, you can’t come back. There’s no back and forth. You’re going to work. You’re going to have to be responsible for this and this and this. I’ll pay for all this and this and this.’ She just started packing, you know, she was angry.
“There was no breaking. That’s why we didn’t talk a lot when she was gone because if we made eye contact or spent time together my wall would have broken and she would have been moving in and out and in and out.”
Ebby’s first steps into the real world were wobbly. She’d counted on being able to move in with a friend without asking first and when that fell apart she was left with practically all of her possessions stuffed into the back seat of her car. She landed at Westbrook’s house for a week leading up to her disappearance.
“I worried about her all the time. When she went to Central and I was at LISA, there would be days I was like, ‘What if I go home and she’s not there?’” Westbrook says. “She lived with me. Every night, we’d sleep in the same bed. We would listen to the same songs on repeat every night. That was just us. That was what we did.
“I remember there would be so many days I’d just tell myself, ‘What if I don’t come back to that? What if I wake up in the morning and she’s gone? What am I going to do?’ There were times where I would come home and I would just squeeze her because you never know what the future holds.”
Almost one month to the day after moving out of her parents’ home, Ebby Steppach vanished.
Photography by Jamison Mosley