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After daughter is found dead on conveyor belt, mother seeks answers

Tears formed on the edges of Jodi Estepp's eyes as she stared at the stiff quilt covering the bed inside Room 217 at the Anaheim Lodge Motel. Was this the last place her daughter slept?

A mirror, a framed picture of a garden and the smell of old cigarette smoke hung on the white walls. But no trace of Jarrae Estepp remained. All of her possessions were waiting in two bags at the Anaheim Police Department.

Jodi walked outside, where a longtime resident of the motel told her she had seen Jarrae briefly when the 21-year-old stopped to admire her tabby.

"Did she look happy?" Jodi asked in a raspy voice, wringing her hands, a star and crescent moon tattooed on the right one.

"She was content," the woman said. "She caught my attention because she was a very pretty girl."

Jarrae checked into Room 217 on March 13 along this stretch of Beach Boulevard where prostitutes, the restless and the down-and-out frequent motels with names like the Robin Hood and the Covered Wagon. A day later, an employee of an Anaheim trash facility discovered her naked body on a conveyor belt.

Her fingerprints and tattoos were used to identify her; the one on the left side of her neck spelled out her mother's name.

Jodi had made the journey from Modesto, cobbling together money from friends and family for gas. The Orange County district attorney's office had promised a hotel room.

She came to Southern California for answers about Jarrae's final days — but was haunted by questions about days long past.

"I did the best I could," she said, "but I wonder if I could've done more or done less of what I did do."

::

Jodi's water broke at a Denny's in Turlock, Calif., when she was 19. She and Jarrae's father, Ronnie Earl Estepp, rushed to the car. It wouldn't start.

An elderly couple sitting a few booths away, Jerry and Rae, drove her to a nearby hospital. Jodi named her daughter Jarrae — a combination of their names.

When Jarrae was 11, her father died after his car went off an icy road. It left Jarrae seeking a man's "love and affection," Jodi said.

Jarrae would grow into a charismatic and stubborn woman — one who liked the idea of a new name. A sign of fresh starts.

When she was young she fancied the name Sarah, Jodi said. She also had a family nickname, Hunny Bee. More recently, she liked to be called Plush and Cupcake, names she got working as an exotic dancer in Oklahoma.

In Anaheim, motel residents said she went by Honeycomb. Probably spelled Hunnycomb, Jodi said.

::

Anaheim police Det. Julissa Trapp had called while Jodi was at a makeshift carwash in Modesto, a fundraiser to get enough gas money to get to Anaheim. It netted only $13.

Jodi had been in Modesto for about two weeks, meeting with family, some of whom she hadn't seen in years, and growing more furious the more that time passed without any arrests, believing the case wasn't being aggressively pursued. When Jodi got the call from the detective April 12, she dropped to her knees.

Finally, a break in the case.

Trapp told her that two registered sex offenders, Franc Cano, 27, and Steven Dean Gordon, 45, had been arrested on suspicion of killing Jarrae and three other women reported missing in Santa Ana. Police had confiscated an RV the men may have been trolling the streets with.

A day and a half later, after an all-night drive, the 40-year-old mother arrived in Anaheim. Standing in front of a Subway restaurant, with cars speeding down Beach Boulevard, she prepared to say goodbye to her daughter.

::

Jarrae and her mother clashed "like any teenager" does with her parents, Jodi said. Then, when she was 16, Jarrae met the man who would become the father of her child.

Jodi didn't like the man, who went by the street name "Menace," but said the more she tried to pull Jarrae away, the tighter her daughter clung to him.

Jodi says her daughter's life was never the same after she met him.

In 2012, Jarrae was convicted of prostitution. That year, she appeared online in a series of vigilante-style videos that show her, in a dark fur-lined jacket with a protruding pregnant belly, walking grimy streets in south Oklahoma City. Using the name Sarah, she's shown jumping into a pickup truck in one scene and sliding out of a sedan in another.

When Jarrae started selling her body, Jodi said, she gave up fighting with her daughter. It was too much, the arguments were constant, she had three boys to raise and she figured Jarrae was going to do what she wanted to do.

Eventually, Jodi said, she accepted her daughter's line of work and even spent some nights standing guard from afar as Jarrae worked Oklahoma's streets and met with clients. She wanted to make sure her daughter was safe, "watch her back"; but looking back, she regrets it.

"I wish I could've protected her more and guided her, given her less freedom," Jodi said. "It makes me wonder if she would still be alive."

In Anaheim, Jodi kept looking for signs that her daughter wasn't engaged in prostitution at the time of her death.

She asked people at the Anaheim Lodge if Jarrae brought men to her room. She wondered aloud why her daughter would meet up with two men willingly. In an RV? She knew better.

Larry Yellin, the senior deputy district attorney prosecuting Gordon and Cano, confirmed her suspicions.

"There's certainly no evidence there was a normal prostitution transaction going on," Yellin said of Jarrae's and the other presumed killings. The men were charged with committing the alleged rapes and murders while lying in wait.

Jodi insisted that her daughter had stopped having sex for money six months before she died, saying Jarrae was juggling two jobs, one as a stripper and another as a housekeeper at a Comfort Inn.

At least as a stripper she wasn't having sex with customers, her mother said. "She wanted a regular life," Jodi said.

She can't forget what she said to Jarrae when the young woman was prostituting herself.

"I told her, 'You're going to get yourself killed if you keep doing this,'" Jodi said, crying. "I was right in the end. I wish I wasn't."

::

The last time Jodi saw her daughter was Feb. 28, Jarrae's late father's birthday. She last spoke to her on the phone March 13, a day before Jarrae's body was found. Jodi thought Jarrae was on her way to Fresno to attend her brother's court hearing for a parole violation.

Jodi, who is living on Social Security benefits, has made mistakes as well.

Among them: On the inside of her right forearm she has the word "featherwood" tattooed in black curvy letters. The term is meant to describe a woman who is a white supremacist. She explained it away, saying she had it tattooed when she was "young and stupid."

"Now I have a biracial grandson, who I love," said Jodi, referring to her daughter's 2-year-old son, Nehemiah McGee, who was staying with his other grandmother for the time being. "Your children change you."

::

Putting down a plastic cup smudged with red lipstick, Jodi walked out of her room at the Motel 6, beckoned by the glare and crackle of fireworks over Disneyland.

"Anaheim was Disneyland," Jodi said, looking at a series of red and gold bursts. "It's not so much fun."

Hours later inside her room, she pulled out a pair of size nine wedge heels from a black Nike gym bag. She had bought them for Jarrae and hated them instantly. She couldn't understand why her daughter liked them.

She had picked up the gym bag and a small Hello Kitty handbag from the Anaheim Police Department that morning.

Jodi also kept touching a green and silver rosary that Trapp had given her. The detective told her she had bought it after being assigned to Jarrae's case.

Next she pulled out a white tank top with black crosses she had bought for her daughter, followed by several pairs of shorts and an empty CD player. An orange shirt, Jarrae's favorite color.

It was the same orange as the urn waiting for her in Modesto, filled with her daughter's ashes. An inscription ran down its side:

"Peace and rest at length have come All the day's long toil is past and each heart is whispering 'home, home at last!'"

::

Jodi took a deep drag from the Marlboro Black resting on her lip.

A young blond with "faith" inked across her right shoulder approached and asked to bum a cigarette. Jodi sighed.

"No, but I have some words for you," Jodi said. "Be careful, please be careful."

The blond furrowed her brow and walked away. Jodi kept her eyes on the young woman, cigarette clouds drifting from her right hand, watching as she walked down the boulevard.

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

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