THICKER THAN BLOOD
Did Sarah Stern’s Friend Kill Her Over a $7,000 Inheritance?
Liam McAtasney will stand trial next week for allegedly strangling his childhood friend for a few thousand dollars.
To everyone in the small New Jersey shore town of Neptune City, Sarah Stern and Liam McAtasney seemed like close childhood friends.
The two met in elementary school, Sarah’s father, Michael Stern, told The Daily Beast, and always seemed to be around one another, even if they were not best friends. The two also both volunteered with the Bradley Beach Fire Department in 2013.
“I used to drive them to school in the mornings and I always made sure Liam got extra candy when I played Santa Claus at their school because he was Sarah’s friend,” Stern said on Thursday. “They weren’t the best of friends, but they were always entangled in each other’s lives. Like the friend you’ve had since you were little that you always go back to even if you don’t talk every day.”
In high school, the two developed different interests—Sarah played varsity softball, was a member of the swim team, and dabbled in photography and digital media, while Liam was “quiet” and spent most of his time with his best friend, Preston Taylor.
But the pair still hung out together in a large friend group, and on his Facebook page, Liam even listed Sarah as his “sister” under the ‘family’ section.
After Liam introduced his best friend to Sarah, Preston took her to the junior prom at their school, Neptune High.
“Preston was her date to prom and Liam was also in that friend group that went together,” Sarah’s father, who was widowed three years ago, said. “They were all so happy that night.”
After graduation in 2015, all three ended up staying in Neptune City and remained friends, one of Sarah’s friends told The Daily Beast.
“Sarah would always bring Preston and Liam around and they were cool guys. A little quiet but always seemed to enjoy being around Sarah,” the friend said. “She had an ability to make everyone in the room feel special and I think the two fed off of that.”
When 19-year-old Sarah went missing on Dec. 3, 2016, Preston and Liam, also 19 at the time, joined one of the first search parties of family, friends, and neighbors who braved the freezing cold to look for her along the Jersey shore.
But two months into the search for Sarah, who had just completed her second semester at Brookdale Community College studying art and TV production, Liam and Preston were charged with her murder.
This Wednesday, Liam McAtasney will finally stand trial for Sarah Stern’s murder after allegedly robbing her of thousands of dollars she kept in a safe deposit box in her room. The trial comes a year after Preston Taylor pleaded guilty as an accomplice in her death in a plea deal that requires him to testify at his former roommate’s trial.
Liam’s trial comes after a two-year investigation into what exactly happened to Sarah Stern, which remains a mystery because her body has never been found.
“I have been waiting for this moment for years,” Michael Stern said. “Nothing will bring Sarah back home, but at least she will get justice.”
On Dec. 2, 2016, a Friday night, authorities originally believed Sarah Stern left her home around 11:45 p.m. to visit a friend and borrowed her grandmother's 1994 silver four-door Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale, based on evidence, witnesses, and her father’s previous conversation with the teen.
Three hours later, Neptune Township police responded to a call from an Uber driver who reported a suspicious car on a shoulder on top of the Route 35 Bridge in Belmar, New Jersey. When police arrived, the Oldsmobile was found abandoned with the keys inside.
Upon learning the vehicle was registered to Sarah’s grandmother, “the Neptune Township Police Department contacted the Neptune City Police Department to request a welfare check of the registered owner of the vehicle.”
When police reached the house, “the residence was found unlocked and no one was home,” authorities said at the time. “Further investigation determined Sarah Stern was the missing driver of the vehicle and her family did not know of her whereabouts.”
At about 3:40 a.m., police alerted the Belmar Water Rescue Team to search Shark River under the assumption Sarah may have jumped from the bridge—but her body was never found.
“An extensive search in the water and the surrounding area was conducted in an attempt to locate Miss Stern with negative results,” Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni said at the time.
In reality, according to prosecutors, Liam McAtasney strangled Sara at her home on Dec. 2, the day before the police found the car—the result of a six-month plot to murder and rob her for the $7,000 she kept in a safe deposit box in her room.
"I'm at the bank. I'm going to do it now. I'm going to take her out," prosecutors say Liam allegedly told his then-roommate Preston moments before the murder, referring to Stern’s home as “the bank.”
McAtasney used so much force during the attack, prosecutors told a judge last February, he lifted her off the ground before laying her on the floor and watching for 30 minutes as she died.
"He knew exactly how long it was because he chose to time it," Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Meghan Doyle said, citing a recorded conversation with a friend that was entered into evidence where Liam was allegedly bragging about the strangling.
A few hours after the murder, prosecutors said, Liam came home and begged Preston to go to Sarah’s house to help get rid of the body and help him look for his cell phone because he feared he had left it somewhere in her home.
“Dude, I did it. We’ll go there later but I need you to go there now and hide the body and remove it from the house,” Liam allegedly said, according to Preston, who confessed to his role in the murder plot.
Preston testified that he went to Sarah’s house, looked for his roommate’s cell phone, and then dragged the lifeless teen outside and hid her under a bush while the two men finished their plans.
“They went back around and checked on her body and looked for the phone twice before figuring out what to do,” a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
Eight hours later, Liam and Preston allegedly threw their childhood friend’s body over a fence and put her in the front seat of her car before Liam drove the vehicle to the Route 35 bridge—which was about a mile away, according to prosecutors.
Her body in the front seat, prosecutors explained, prompted witnesses to believe she left her house at 11:45 p.m., still alive.
Preston followed in his car and helped Liam push her body over the side of the bridge into the Shark River, Doyle said, before leaving her car on the side of the road to make it seem like a suicide.
Once the investigation into Sarah’s disappearance was underway, receiving attention from YouTube celebrities like Los Angeles-based video blogger Julien Solomita and his girlfriend, Jenna Marbles, the two young men allegedly tried to cover up the killing by inserting themselves in the search.
"For the two months after that, [Liam McAtasney] spent the entire time calculating every one of his moves to continue to cover up the murder and death of Sarah Stern," Doyle said, adding that the teen lied to police in a December interview. "He thought that that would alleviate his guilt.”
Friends and authorities also believe that Liam played up his relationship with Sarah so police “would not focus on him as a suspect.”
“Listen, we were all friends and hung out together, but Liam made it seem to police like he just lost his absolute best friend,” Sarah’s friend said. “All of us who were actually best friends with Sarah were beside ourselves. The way he made it seem, it was like he lost his soulmate or something.”
On New Year’s Eve in 2016, investigators received a tip from a former classmate of Liam and Preston, who claimed the two were the suspects the police were searching for, and that the classmate had a videotaped conversation to prove it. In the tape, prosecutors say, Liam detailed the murder and his motive to take Sarah’s money.
On Feb. 1, 2017, Liam McAtasney was charged with murder, felony murder, conspiracy, hindering apprehension, and desecration of human remains. Preston Taylor was charged with conspiracy, hindering apprehension, and desecration of human remains.
Liam, now 20, and Preston, now 21, remain behind bars in the Monmouth County jail.
Though the two have yet to stand trial, Preston accepted a plea deal in April to drop an initial murder charge in exchange for testifying against Liam next week.
In the deal, Preston pleaded guilty to throwing Sarah's body off the bridge, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, tampering with physical evidence, and two counts of hindering apprehension. He faces 20 years to life in prison.
"He couldn’t live with himself and felt like he needed to admit what he did. He has something he had to get off his chest and he had to atone for this,” John Perrone, his attorney, told The Daily Beast last week.
In Preston’s confession, he described how his best friend allegedly came up with the murderous plot after learning in August that Sarah had come into money from her grandmother and that the money was kept in a safe box in her room.
After killing Sarah, the two broke open the safe, took the money, and later buried the empty safe at Shark River Park, Preston told prosecutors. They put the stolen money in another safe that was buried at Sandy Hook, Preston told the court in February.
“Police recovered two buried safe boxes connected to the Sarah Stern case. One was in Sandy Hook, which contained about $7,000, and another in Shark River Park, which had Sarah Stern’s clothing,” a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office said, though Preston told the court that the two had stolen $10,000.
Prosecutors and the Neptune City Police both confirmed to The Daily Beast the missing $3,000 has not been located, authorities say.
Hours after Preston Taylor's plea, a grand jury came back with a seven-count indictment against Liam McAtasney, increasing his charges and finding an aggravating factor that increases the penalty if convicted to life in prison without parole.
Liam’s attorney, Carlos Diaz-Cobo, told The Daily Beast “our client is not interested in any plea, has always maintained his innocence and we are prepared to go to trial.”
In a taped interview with a Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office detective obtained by the Asbury Park Press, Liam also maintained his innocence, telling authorities, "if she did jump off the bridge, what are the odds that she's not somewhere all the way out in the ocean by now."
"If she had told me that she was going to jump off the bridge, there would have been no way I would have gone to work that night," Liam said in the video.
Charles Stone, the Sterns’ lawyer and a family friend, however, said the case against Liam is “airtight, especially when you add [Preston] Taylor’s testimony and the footage of him admitting the crime.”
“We have video evidence, witness testimony, and physical evidence,” Stone said. “There is more than enough evidence to bring this man to justice and allow the family and the community to find some peace.”
The anticipated six-week trial has one snag in the prosecution, however: the 19-year-old’s body is still missing.
“The fact that there is no body creates reasonable doubt that the state cannot overcome," Diaz-Cobo said. “We are confident [Liam] McAtasney will be found not guilty and go home to his family."
Christopher Decker, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor who will be presenting the state’s case with Assistant Prosecutor Meghan Doyle, declined to comment prior to trial but confirmed about 40 witnesses may be called to testify by the state.
For Michael Stern, the trial will finally give him some closure about what happened to his daughter that December night, even if he can’t ever physically lay his daughter to rest.
“My life has been on hold for two years. I can’t focus and you never know what might trigger a thought of Sarah,” he said. “I have a huge hole in my heart, and nothing can ever make it whole. But at least this trial will help.”