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Mother hopeful new detective will solve 2015 murder of daughter Ebby Steppach

18-year-old Ebby vanished in October 2015, but her remains weren't found until May 2018.

Ebby Jane Steppach had dreams of becoming a cosmetologist. The daughter of two hair stylists, she was already immersed in that world and the craft came naturally.

But Ebby’s specialty was makeup. She worked two part-time jobs as a teenager, saving every dollar so she could buy nice, expensive makeup. And she took excellent care of it.

So when the vibrant eyeshadow palettes and tubes of lipstick were found broken and scattered throughout her car just days after she was reported missing, Ebby’s mother knew something was wrong. She knew her daughter was in danger.

“By that time, I just knew in my soul that something was really wrong,” Ebby’s mother, Laurie Jeringan, told Dateline.

Ebby Jane Steppach
Ebby Jane SteppachPhoto provided by Ebby's mother Laurie Jernigan

Ebby was a young woman with big dreams and a fiery personality, who loved her family and had a big heart for those less fortunate.

"She was very funny,” Laurie said. “She would not let you leave a room without making you laugh. I would give anything to hear her laugh again. To laugh with her again.”

Laurie said the days since Ebby died, have been filled with trying to find out what happened to her daughter in October of 2015.

It was around that time that Laurie said the 18-year-old high school student started to change.

“She went through a lot of changes all at once and suddenly she was chomping at the bit to take control of her life,” Laurie said. “But her stepdad and I were really strict. And she started to push back… rebel.”

She explained that Ebby had started a new job, started hanging out with a different crowd, changed schools - all of which she believes led to the rebellion.

“She was really rebelling and fighting, fighting back and storming out,” Laurie said. “It was polar opposite than the Ebby we knew. It was hard for all of us.”

So Ebby’s mom and stepfather, Michael, told her she needed to behave in a respectful manner or she needed to move out. Ebby opted to move out and bounced around between staying with friends and her older brother, Trevor.

Although Ebby had moved out, she kept in touch with her parents and even reached out to her stepfather Michael with an alarming situation.

Her mother Laurie told Dateline that Ebby had texted Michael around 8 p.m. on October 24, 2015, and told him she had been raped by a group of men at a party and that the assault had been videotaped. She wanted Michael to go to the police with her to report the incident.

Laurie said she was with her husband out to dinner at the time, but had no idea about the text. She later learned that Michael had agreed to help Ebby, so he took Laurie home and attempted to reach Ebby to make a plan. Ebby had spent the day with her grandparents, and left their house around 8 p.m. telling them she was going to meet her stepfather.

"I'm grateful that I wasn't told about that text, about what happened," Laurie said. "Because I know I would've been hysterical and rushed over. Instead, Ebby got to spend that last day with her grandparents. And that's something that has given me solace."

But later that evening, Ebby had stopped responding to Michael. She never responded to her grandmother’s calls, either. And she never showed up at the police station. She remained silent for nearly 24 hours.

The next evening around 5:30 p.m., Ebby called her brother, Trevor, and told him that she was in her car, but didn’t know where she was. He recalled her sounding confused, disoriented and panicked, their mother Laurie told Dateline.

It was the last time anyone ever heard from Ebby.

“That’s when Trevor told me something was terribly wrong,” Laurie said. “And I just became hysterical.”

Ebby’s family contacted everyone they knew and anyone they thought may have been in contact with Ebby. But no one knew where she was. So they turned to the police. And they were stopped in their tracks.

“We were told that we couldn't file a police report for 12 hours,” Laurie said. “So we had to wait. And the minute we could do so, on October 26 in the middle of the night, we filed a report.”

But Ebby’s family and friends had already taken matters into their own hands and began passing out fliers across town, hoping someone had seen her. But as time passed, they became more and more worried.

“I just knew it, everything in my soul, I knew something had happened to her,” Laurie said.

Days later, Ebby's Volkswagen Passat was found parked in Chalamont Park. Her keys, her phone, her purse, makeup and contact lenses were scattered inside.

What worried her mother most of all was the condition of Ebby’s makeup.

“She saved her money and worked hard to buy really nice makeup,” Laurie said. “And it was broken all over the car. If she was a ‘runaway’ like the police kept saying, she would’ve taken her makeup. And definitely her contacts. She wasn’t a so-called runaway. Something happened to her.”

Officers with the Little Rock Police Department searched the park, but came up empty-handed. Laurie told Dateline investigators continued to call Ebby a “runaway” and assured Laurie she’d be back soon.

But Ebby didn’t return.

The case made national news and people from all over the world contacted the Little Rock Police Department and the family with bogus tips, some even claiming to be holding Ebby captive as they demanded money for her safe return.

The nightmare only continued for Ebby’s family as they noticed mistakes they said police had made from the beginning and believed her case was not being taken seriously.

Now-retired Little Rock Police homicide detective Tommy Hudson stepped in and took over Ebby’s case in 2017. He had retired earlier in the year, but returned just months later to help with the new cold case unit.

He told Dateline that mistakes were made early on in the case before he was brought on to help solve it.

“When I got the case, there were things that weren’t done that should’ve been done on the front end,” Hudson said, explaining that interviewing key witnesses and checking surveillance footage had not been done.

“Why this wasn’t done, I don’t know,” Hudson said. “It was up to us to clean up the mess and basically start from the beginning.

So he delved deep into the case, determined to solve it.

"There was some evidence we were looking at that was found at the scene when she initially disappeared that bothered us," Hudson said. "It was something I just couldn't shake. I wanted to check the park again."

Working off a gut instinct, Hudson told Dateline he felt they needed to take another look in the park where Ebby’s car was found back in 2015.

“There was a drainage pipe not far from the car, and it had rained in the days after she went missing,” he said. “So I kept thinking she might have been washed into the pipe, which would have made it more difficult to find her.”

Hudson obtained maps of the drainage pipes from the city and took a team back down to Chalamont Park, where they sent cameras down drainage pipes.

"It was a gut feeling with all of us," he said. “Something was there. And I knew it was Ebby.”

The equipment hit obstructions on both ends of the drainage pipe and Hudson was given the go-ahead to dig up the section of pipe.

“The blockage was pulled up by the bulldozer and turned around and there she was, right in front of me,” Hudson said. “There was no doubt it was her.”

Ebby’s remains were found on May 22, 2018, a mere 60 feet from where her car had been found two years earlier.

When Ebby’s remains were found, Laurie was devastated. When she found out that the remains were found so close to her car, and could have possibly been found much sooner, she was angry.

“If Ebby had been found right away, we wouldn't have had to go through this nightmare,” she said. “We could have put her to rest. And we could have found her killer by now.”

Although Hudson would not tell Dateline how Ebby died, because he believes it would interfere with the investigation, he said her death is being investigated as a homicide.

He also added that they have persons of interest in the case and have interviewed multiple people, but no one had been named a suspect at this time.

For Ebby's family and friends, they just want answers.

"She would still be dead if they found her in a week," Laurie said. "But if Tommy had been on the case back then and had found her in a week, they would've found who did it and we wouldn’t have had to keep living this nightmare. It has taken a toll on our entire family.”

For Ebby’s older brother, Trevor, the toll his sister’s disappearance and death took on his heart may have been too much. At just 35 years old, he died of a massive heart attack.

“I think it was too much on his heart,” his mother Laurie told Dateline. “And the burden of being the last person to talk to Ebby.”

Laurie said she later found out that after Ebby disappeared, Trevor spent his lunch hours searching the trunks of abandoned cars for his sister and traveling to other states following up on tips.

“He never gave up on her, on finding out what happened,” she said. “When he died, I thought, now he knows what happened to her. He has the answers he was looking for.”

While the search for Ebby’s body ended in 2018, Tommy Hudson, the lead investigator on her case at the time kept working on finding her killer.

But again, the case hit a snag when Hudson recently announced he was again retiring and relocating across the river, where he will help out at the North Little Rock Police Department cold case unit.

“He came in and saved the day on Ebby’s case,” Laurie said. “But someone else needs him now.”

Hudson told Dateline that a new investigator has been assigned to Ebby’s case and that he has complete faith in his investigative abilities. Detective Bruce Maxwell has access to all of Hudson’s work on the case and they are in constant contact.

Shortly following the news of Hudson's retirement, Little Rock Police Department released a statement about Ebby's case:

“The Little Rock Police Department is committed to work collectively to resolve all cold cases; more specifically the Ebby Steppach case. Our cold case unit is comprised of seasoned investigators who have retired as active members of the Little Rock Police Department. Together, they will continue to work on any new developments in this case.”

Ebby’s mother Laurie told Dateline she was devastated to see Hudson leave, but is hopeful that Maxwell will solve the case and finally get justice for Ebby.

“My faith is so strong and I trust that God will bring answers,” Laurie said. “But no matter what happens, I have peace. I have peace because Ebby isn’t alone. I have peace knowing neither Ebby or Trevor are alone. They're together. Everything else? Well, with God, I’ll make it through.”

Anyone with information about Ebby Steppach’s case is asked to call the Little Rock Police Department Cold Case Unit at (501) 404–3128.