A New Jersey college student has been found guilty of murdering his childhood friend Sarah Stern in an attempt to steal her inheritance money, before dumping her body off a Jersey Shore bridge in 2016 to cover up the crime.
Prosecutors alleged in Liam McAtasney’s month-long trial that the 21-year-old killed Stern over roughly $8,000 stashed in her bedroom. He apparently thought he was going to get $100,000 from the heist, Assistant Prosecutor Meghan Doyle told Monmouth County jurors.
After one day of deliberation, th jury found McAtasney guilty on Tuesday of all seven charges, including first-degree murder, felony murder, and robbery.
The trial came after a two-year investigation into the mysterious death of Stern, who was last seen on Dec. 2, 2016. While her car was found abandoned on a New Jersey bridge, her body has never been found.
“The defendant murdered her and made sure the body will never be found," Doyle said in her opening remarks. “Strangled the life out of her… dumped her like garbage.”
She added: “Sarah Stern will not be walking through that door. She will never hug her father again.”
McAtasney’s attorney, Carlos Diaz-Cobo, argued that since the 19-year-old’s body was never found, there is no physical evidence to support the accusations against his client.
“If we don’t have a body, and we have a witness who says he saw the individual hours and hours and hours after the state says she was killed, we do not have a murder,” Diaz-Cobo declared in his closing statement last Friday.
During the trial, Diaz-Coho provided a witness who testified to seeing someone who looked like Stern on the bridge the night of her alleged murder.
“The entire trial, you will be asking, ‘Something’s not right. Something is missing,’” Diaz-Cobo said in his opening remarks, at another point implying Stern had a “strained” relationship with her father. That tension, which included verbal abuse according to the defense, prompted Sarah to talk to friends about running away to Canada.
The prosecution, however, countered that a grisly, secretly recorded confession video of McAtasney and his accomplice, Preston Taylor—which was played in court—proved the 21-year-old committed the crime and later boasted about it.
“Not having a body is not reasonable doubt when you have the two involved saying ‘We killed her, we threw her off the bridge, we took her money,’” Christopher Decker, assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, said on Friday.
Anthony Curry, an amateur filmmaker, testified in court that about a month after the murder, McAtasney revealed his plans to kill Stern and steal her inheritance. After news broke of Sarah’s disappearance, Curry went to police, who encouraged the filmmaker to prompt a private conversation about the murder and record it.
The video, which was set up in Curry’s car, showed McAtasney admitting to choking Stern for half an hour before stealing two safes and enlisting his roommate to cover up the crime.
“She goes to walk out the front door. I choke her out, drag her. My biggest problem was the dog. Her dog laid there and watched as I killed her,” he said in the video. “We threw her off the bridge and her body never showed up.”
His defense lawyer, however, claimed that McAtasney is only guilty of making up the murder story in the video to impress his friend.
“A beyond-immature boy, Liam was going to take this unfortunate story and make it up," Diaz-Cobo told the jury. “It’s not believable—it’s impossible,” he said at the start of the trial. “It’s a script and it’s not true.”
Preston Taylor, Sarah’s junior-prom date and McAtasney’s accomplice, pleaded guilty last year to his role in the murder. As part of his plea deal, Taylor appeared as the prosecution’s star witness, testifying against his former roommate and high-school friend on the first day of the trial.
Taylor revealed to the jury that McAtasney said Sarah had the “type of money somebody would kill for” after he was with her when she discovered a shoe-box full of cash in her family’s second home in Avon-by-the-Sea. The shoe box also contained a note from Sarah’s mother, who had died a few years before, explaining that the money was her inheritance.
Then, the accomplice claimed, the plan changed from getting their friend drunk and taking her inheritance to something more sinister.
“[We] specifically decided that Liam would strangle her,” the now-21-year-old testified. “Any other way, any type of weapon, would have been too messy, would have left a whole lot of evidence.”
He continued: “And then as far as what to do with her after she was dead, we talked about a couple plans. Bury her down at the campsite that Liam’s dad owns, leaving her at the house, and then ultimately, we decided that the best way to go about it would be to make it look like a suicide.”
Taylor then described how he found found Stern’s lifeless, pale body slumped over a toilet in the bathroom before dragging her body out of the house and hid it in the bushes in the backyard.
Hours later, McAtasney and Taylor returned to the house, propped their friend’s body in her car to make it appear as if she was sleeping in the front seat, and took it to the bridge above Shark River, Taylor testified.
The two then pushed her her body over the edge and left the car with the keys inside to make it appear as if she committed suicide.
Taylor previously pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery, second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery, second-degree disturbing or desecrating human remains, two counts of third-degree hindering apprehension, and fourth-degree tampering with physical evidence.
He now faces up to 20 years in prison.
McAtasney, who has maintained his innocence and declined to testify in court, now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.