The remains of an Arkansas teen who vanished more than two years ago have been found, and police tell Oxygen.com that what had been a missing persons case is now a homicide investigation.
Ebby Steppach, 18, was last seen alive on October 24, 2015. Her bones were found last Tuesday in a park drainage pipe in a Little Rock suburb, steps from where her car was discovered after she disappeared.
The finding has raised questions about the early steps in the case, with a former Little Rock cop who looked into Steppach's disapperance for her family as a private investigator after he retired, telling Oxygen.com there were "missed opportunities" years ago.
Little Rock police initially described the case Wednesday as a "missing person case." But Public Information Officer Steve Moore told Oxygen.com Friday that police are now treating it as a homicide probe while they await cause of death confirmation from the medical examiner's office, which "will take some time."
“It’s a homicide case now,” Moore said. “We are treating it like a homicide investigation while we await the official result.”
In November 2016, police and cadavers dogs searched for Steppach’s remains at the same location where they were found Tuesday, but at the time they found nothing, police said.
"Cadaver dogs searched that area for over three days, and didn’t locate any kind of scent that would lead us to believe that Ms. Steppach was in that area," Thomas Hudson, a detective with the Little Rock Police Department, said Wednesday.
When investigators searched again and found Steppach's remains, they "immediately shut everything down" and told Steppach's family "we had found human remains," Hudson said.
After Steppach disappeared, a “Find Ebby Steppach” Facebook page was set up by her "close family," the page says. Her mother Lauire Holman Jernigan posted on the page Wednesday, “The day is here … I have wondered a long time what it will be like, a phone call, the middle of the night, a knock on the door? It came in a phone call.”
“Ebby Jane you are dancing in the Throne Room while we weep at your grave. I long for the day I will join you. Your life has brought purpose and meaning to so many and I’m proud to be your mom,” Jernigan wrote.
Besides Steppach’s remains, Hudson said investigators found unspecified “new evidence,” which police sent to a laboratory for analysis.
“And we’ll be waiting for the testing results on the evidence that was taken from those pipes,” Hudson said, referring to the drainage pipes where Steppach's remains were found.
Monty Vickers, a former homicide detective who was a Little Rock police officer for 24 years, told Oxygen.com that there were "a lot of missed opportunities in the beginning" of the case.
One of them, he said, was the failure to find Steppach’s body earlier.
After retiring, Vickers worked as a private investigator, and was hired by Steppach’s family to look into the disappearance. “More than likely it was murder, kidnapping,” he said.
Steppach told family and friends that she had been raped with four men present the Friday night before she disappeared, Vickers said, based on what her family told him and text messages he had seen that she had sent to a friend.
"There were four people that she said raped her. It was at a party. One of them had sex with her, the other three watched. One made a video," Vickers said.
When Steppach found out about the video, “she told them she was going to the police,” he said.
The day after that, she stopped answering her phone and a security guard saw her car sitting in the park. It remained there unlocked and filled with Steppach's possessions for six days until police towed it, Vickers said.
Moore, the Little Rock police department public information officer, confirmed to Oxygen.com that the four men were being looked at anew.
“That’s all part of the homicide investigation,” he said.
Vickers and Moore both declined to name the men, who have not been charged with any crime.
Moore declined to comments on Vickers' criticisms, telling Oxygen.com, "We don't have anything to say about that."
[Photo: Little Rock Police Department]