The Ebby Steppach case approaches its two-year anniversary.
By Dwain Hebda :: Photographs courtesy of Ebby’s family
She looms 10 feet tall on billboards all over central Arkansas and whispers from glossy magazine pages on your coffee table.
Ebby Steppach also flashes into the grocery store aisle, appears in the foamy surf of her family’s Florida vacation spot, laughs through the furtive yips of her dog, Furball, and is sprinkled in every crowd her mother Laurie Jernigan has found herself in over the past two years.
“We go to Florida every year,” Jernigan says. “That trip to Florida is a much-needed vacation for my family, but it’s so hard because everywhere you look you see brunette, blond, young, pretty girls. It exhausts us. You walk and you can’t help but turn and look because everyone there looks like her, certainly from behind.”
Jernigan is having a good day today; tomorrow might be a bad day or it might shift somewhere in between the two. There’s no telling where the rudder of emotions will steer her or what trigger she’ll encounter that shapes her mood.
“Think about this: You go to the grocery store and you walk past Hot Pockets,” Jernigan says. “That’s what she ate all the time. You don’t think about that, but I can’t walk down that aisle. It’s the Hot Pockets.”
So goes life for family and friends these days, a state of flux that follows different rules of time and space than the rest of the world. You must cope or die, even though giving yourself permission to live sometimes feels like license to forget.
“We know God’s got a hand in it,” Jernigan says. “He’s had a hand in it all; for whatever reason, we went through everything we went through to get where we are. I think there comes a time that you either go crazy or you surrender.”
Furball jumps into Jernigan’s lap as she glances at Ebby’s portrait on the wall in the family room.
“I don’t know how people get through anything without faith,” she says. “If this world’s all you have, I would have jumped off a bridge.”
Ebby Steppach is all of us.
She’s in neighborhoods both affluent and shabby. She’s the giggling teenager at a football game and the quiet, reticent kid on the outskirts of popularity. She hears the fights we have with our spouse, mourns our relationship failures and makes the same foolish, naïve choices we survived and which we so desperately try to prevent our children from making. She knew she was loved, but she yearned for more.
“My dentist asked me how it’s going and he said, ‘The most powerful part of your story is you’re just an ordinary person. This can happen to anybody,'” Jernigan says. “Just an ordinary person with an ordinary family.”
No one can prepare for the unthinkable and in 2015, the Jernigans were no exception. Once Ebby went missing, panic and worry locked onto the family. They tried to channel emotions into avenues that made the most sense given the haze they were in, organizing searches and posting fliers.
Laurie and Michael Jernigan, Ebby’s stepfather, immediately reached out to the Little Rock Police Department (LRPD), a relationship that within months would become a gridlock of red tape and battles of ego with investigators. Ebby was never officially ruled a runaway; the LRPD handbook classifies runaways according to age at time of disappearance, and at 18, Ebby didn’t quite make the cutoff. But the family could never shake the feeling that Ebby was being written off as another misguided teen, scarred by divorce and rebelling to go and do whatever she damn well pleased.
“In most cases, really and truly, it’s the family that drives the search. We find ourselves telling that to families all the time,” says Colleen Nick, head of the Morgan Nick Foundation in Alma. Nick has provided help and guidance to Ebby’s family.
“If you have a family who just sits at home, that case may just sit there as well. Law enforcement has a thousand other things to do. If a parent is out there pushing that envelope and demanding those resources and trying hard to work in conjunction with law enforcement, a lot more will be done,” says Nick. “It is, unfortunately, exactly how it works most of the time.”
Nick founded the organization in 1996, a year after her 6-year-old daughter, Morgan, was abducted from a Little League ball game as she chased lightning bugs. Today, the Morgan Nick Foundation works coast to coast providing education on abduction prevention and advocating for legislation that protects the rights of children. Here in Arkansas, the group directly serves families dealing with missing children.
All that work over two decades has helped numerous people, but it’s done nothing to ease the ache Nick feels for her missing child.
“I don’t think it ever becomes easier to deal with. As part of the stages of grief it’s just open-ended with no resolution. The not knowing is incredibly painful for families,” Nick says.
“I think sometimes distance from the event that happened allows families to gain some strength, to kind of gather back up and reorganize and move forward. But it literally never gets easier. I think the pain gets worse for families as every single day goes by that they have not found their child.”
That pain is fertile breeding ground for scam artists looking to cash in on the worst period of a family’s life.
“Families are desperate,” says Nick. “They will turn to anybody who offers help. The problem is there are definitely individuals and organizations who are not legitimate. It’s unfortunate because sometimes [families are] just so anxious to work with anybody that they end up getting hurt.”
It’s not a particularly difficult scam to run; all someone needs are a few facts gleaned from news reports, a compelling story and enough depravity to peddle in others’ misery.
“I saw your daughter, I can deliver those responsible — for a fee.”
“I used to do bad things, but I’m a mother like you. I think my boyfriend knows something.”
“I’ve got your daughter; pay up or you’ll never see her again.”
“[You have] to be on guard,” Laurie Jernigan says. “People who want to extort money from you say, ‘We’ve got her. We just sold her. We want your money.’ That’s a whole other part of it.”
Jernigan tells these stories matter-of-factly now, as one who has come to recognize the darkest and ugliest conditions of the human soul. It wasn’t always this way, though. Before Ebby’s disappearance Jernigan was as oblivious as anyone to the quicksand of human trafficking networks and wholesale slave trade that captures so many lost and vulnerable girls.
Sites like Craigslist and Backpage thinly veil the services to be had under category headings such as “Massage” or “Dating: women seeking men.” They are sites that turn the stomach, but that companies like Google are suing to keep legal under the banner of Internet free speech. This despite The New York Times reporting 73 percent of U.S. child sex trafficking involves Backpage.
“Personally, I searched all of those: Craigslist, Backpage, anything,” says Danielle Westbrook, Ebby’s close friend. “It is the most disgusting, filthiest part of the world. It’s unfathomable how huge the sex-trafficking industry is. I think there are people who walk up and down these streets every single day and it’s happening right there in front of their face and they don’t even know it.”
The people who are trapped in that life are kept there through various means of coercion, says Tina Storz, a part-time investigator affiliated with Mississippi-based Halos Investigations. She actively works Ebby’s case.
“Once they get them in there, they’re going to take their ID, and when they take their ID they’re going to have their whole life,” she says. “They have your address. They know where you live. A lot of them know your social security number. They’re able to reel you in and tell you, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you to do then we will contact the family. We will hurt your family. We will do multiple things, anything to bring you down.’”
Storz had successfully worked another case in Little Rock. When she learned about Ebby, she reached out to Jernigan with an offer to help, free of charge. She spends her nights and free time searching for any hint of the young woman online in places no parent would want to see their child.
“This is a good example: A girl’s been taken, they’re going to put her on a sex site, right?” Storz says. “There are so many apps out there now that can erase a tattoo on the body. Or they’re going to use an app to put a fake tattoo over it.”
Storz says it’s often the smallest of details that can foil a pimp and reveal a girl’s true identity.
She noted that the smallest details can be a lead. “I had a girl not long ago — she had a necklace on and the necklace is what got me,” she says. “We can look for birthmarks. If they’re cutters we can look for certain cuts on the arms or the legs.”
Joseph Travers, a California-based investigator and author retained by Ebby’s father, Peter Steppach, says what makes such cases difficult to crack is that few, if any, traffickers are lone-wolf operators. The vast majority have ties to complex networks run by gangs that deal in human flesh as a lucrative and highly mobile commodity.
“The old show Starsky & Hutch, remember Huggy Bear the pimp? That doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “All pimps are gangbangers, whether they’re from black gangs, Hispanic gangs or white gangs, they just call it differently. Black gangs still refer to themselves as pimps; the Hispanic and white gangs who traffic girls call themselves ‘protectors.'”
Travers says younger gang members are often tasked with bringing in targets as human inventory.
“All [gangs] have recruiters,” he says. “The recruiters are usually the younger gangbangers or want-to-be gangbangers and they befriend the girls and get them to get high with them. A girl anywhere from 12 to 17, one whose parents were recently divorced or is going through some kind of breakup with a boyfriend or they’re just sitting by themselves in the cafeteria.”
“The recruiting is mostly done in schools, junior high or high school, because gangbangers go to school too, unfortunately,” he says.
Ebby Steppach is not a mere statistic.
Experts cannot put a number on missing children in the United States, due to the wildly hit-and-miss nature of reporting. But while we cannot know the precise total of young people who disappear — voluntarily or otherwise — simple logic suggests it’s far too many. And an appalling number do so anonymously without anyone noticing, much less looking for them or mourning them. Ebby isn’t one of them.
After the initial difficulty with LRPD’s Major Crimes Unit, the case was reassigned to Homicide and Det. Tommy Hudson. Hudson retired from active duty but was reunited with the case after it was reassigned to the department’s recently formed Cold Case Unit, where he spends a couple days each week.
Requests to interview Hudson were not granted, but LRPD spokesman Lt. Steve McClanahan explained work would continue on the case to whatever degree possible.
“We would say it’s open indefinitely,” he says. “If we’re constantly getting new information, that’s going to keep that case more active. Say we have had no new leads in eight months, then that’s a little bit of a different ballgame. That case isn’t per se closed and not looked at; it’s just not receiving any new active tips or anything.”
Cold and closed cases are not the same thing. “Cold” means new leads or tips have ceased. “Closed” means there’s a definitive resolution, for better or worse. Where the two intersect is the hardest part of any investigator’s job, says McClanahan.
“Statistics tell you that if you don’t find them early on that those chances [for safe return] diminish,” he says. “You have those thoughts, but you also try to remain positive because you’re trying to work with the family. You want the family to have hope.”
Danielle Westbrook, who went through her own domestic issues growing up, considers the time spent with her friend as pivotal in her life. Ebby crashed at her house in the weeks leading up to the disappearance, during which time she inspired Westbrook to discover her inner strength.
“I am the type of person — nothing’s going to stop me,” she says. “I’m going to chase my dreams. I want to be a doctor when I grow up; I’m going to go to med school and I’m going to kick med school’s butt. That’s what Ebby would tell me to do.”
Westbrook said she continues to search for her friend and will do so until the matter is resolved. Anything less minimizes what Ebby meant to her, she says.
Westbrook says Ebby was a fighter — never the kind of girl who would give up. “Only because she would fight so hard for me, that’s why I’m going to fight just as hard for her.”
Sharonda Boyd is the mother of Caleb Boyd, a classmate Ebby defended against a false gun-possession accusation at school.
She says she saw what a big heart the girl had throughout the ordeal.
“Ebby was one of the people campaigning for Caleb and talking to teachers to write character letters for him,” she says. “My family is very, very close-knit. Once you enter our house, especially if you eat, then you’re like family,”
Upon hearing the news of Ebby’s disappearance, Boyd says she and her family helped search for Ebby as if she was one of their own. Two years later, she still sees things through a mother’s eyes.
“I want closure for her family. Just restore some type of peace to her family, her mom, her sister, all of them,” she says. “I can only imagine as a mama you can make an assumption, but you still don’t know for sure. There’s still that little inkling in you that’s like, ‘I don’t want to give up on her.’ I just want her mom to be able to see and know.”
Ask Laurie Jernigan where she thinks Ebby is now and she will tell you, clear-eyed and steady, that her daughter is no longer alive. The combination of statistical probability and an overwhelming desire for Ebby to be comfortable with her loving Lord rather than repeatedly brutalized by a monster captor allows her to say that.
“I don’t want her broken. She doesn’t have to struggle. She’s not being traded or sold. You can survive something like that, but why would I want her back at that cost?” she says. “A lot of people don’t believe it that way.”
“Someone said to me, ‘Best-case scenario is, she is sex trafficked.’ I said, ‘No, that’s the worst-case scenario. The best-case scenario is she’s deceased and with God.’ They totally did not get that. I think so many people are afraid of death because they don’t know what death is. Well, I know what death is. It’s freedom.”