FREEHOLD, N.J. — A New Jersey man was convicted Tuesday of killing a childhood friend for her inheritance and throwing her body over the side of a bridge to make her death look like suicide.
Liam McAtasney, 21, of Neptune City, was found guilty of murder, robbery, desecration of human remains, conspiracy to desecrate human remains, tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension, according to NJ.com. He faces life in prison at his May 24 sentencing.
Family members of the victim, 19-year-old Sarah Lee Stern, wept when the verdict was rendered.
“The most important thing is to get justice for Sarah,” her father, Michael Stern, told reporters outside the courthouse. “She was a great kid. It never should have ended like this.”
As he broke down in tears, he thanked the media for their courtesy and doggedness in covering his daughter’s disappearance and presumed murder. Sarah Stern’s body was never found.
Hugh Roarty, a tidal expert from Rutgers University, testified Feb. 5 that Stern's body, which prosecutors said McAtasney threw from the Route 35 bridge in Belmar the early morning of Dec. 3, 2016, likely drifted out of the Shark River Inlet in under an hour, NJ.com reported.
Using measurements of the wind, waves and currents at the time Stern's body allegedly went into the water, Roarty determined her body would have made it at least seven miles into the Atlantic Ocean within 24 hours, before anyone had the chance to locate it, the news site reported.
Stern’s abandoned 1994 Oldsmobile 88 was found on the bridge by police. The keys were still in the ignition.
First Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Lori Linskey praised the two assistant prosecutors in the case, Meghan Doyle and Christopher Decker, for their work preparing and putting on the state’s case during the month-long trial.
"Their tireless pursuit of justice in this case was really awe-inspiring to us, and we're incredibly proud of their hard work," Linskey said, according to NJ.com. "They've worked long and hard on this case and it's been a really long road."
The trial began Jan. 23 with testimony from 21-year-old Preston Taylor, McAtasney’s alleged accomplice -- and Stern’s junior prom date. Taylor, who has already pleaded guilty to his part in the crime, testified that McAtasney planned to kill Stern over about $100,000 he believed she had in her home.
Stern had told him about a large amount of cash she found stashed in a home her family was using for storage. The money was left to her by her mother, who died when the trio was in high school.
Taylor testified that McAtasney told him Stern had found the "type of money somebody would kill for," ABC7 reported last month. The plan was to get her drunk and steal the money.
"(We) specifically decided that Liam would strangle her," Taylor testified, according to the news station. "Any other way, any type of weapon, would have been too messy, would have left a whole lot of evidence. 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 (or) leaving her at the house."
The pair decided to stage Stern’s death as a suicide. McAtasney, who ended up getting only about $8,000 from the slaying, strangled her at her home before calling Taylor for help getting rid of her body.
Taylor testified that McAtasney detailed Stern’s torturous death.
“It took quite a while for her to actually stop breathing, about a half-hour,” Taylor said. “In the process, she beat herself, she vomited. When she started throwing up, he stuffed a scarf down her throat, and all the while, she said his name a couple times.”
Watch a snippet of Preston Taylor’s testimony below. In the second video, he describes during his 2017 plea hearing how he helped Liam McAtasney dispose of the body of their high school classmate, Sarah Stern.
Jurors also heard details of Stern's death from McAtasney's own mouth. The defendant was captured confessing to the crime on a camera set up by detectives in the car of a friend, Anthony Curry. McAtasney's attorney, Carlos Dios-Cobo, argued that his client made up the story to impress Curry, a budding horror filmmaker, NJ.com reported.
McAtasney also talks in the video about how long Stern took to die.
"It took me a half-hour to kill her," McAtasney says in the video, NJ.com reported. "I thought I was going to choke her out in a couple minutes. She was having a seizure on the floor. I got a shirt and shoved it down her throat so she wouldn't throw up, and held my finger over her nose and set a timer."
Curry testified during the trial that McAtasney confided in him Thanksgiving night 2016 that he planned to kill Stern for her inheritance from her late mother. According to NJ.com, he said he didn't take his friend seriously -- until he heard about Stern's sudden disappearance barely a week later.
Curry went to investigators with what he knew.
Listen to a portion of Liam McAtasney’s confession to a friend regarding the December 2016 death of childhood friend Sarah Stern below. Warning: The footage may be graphic to some viewers.
"He was gonna choke her, choke her out, bring her to the bridge, throw her off," Curry testified in courtroom footage shot by NJ.com. "Preston was going to drive the escape vehicle and, uh, and they were gonna bury the money and leave the keys in the ignition to make it look like she killed herself."
NJ.com reported that McAtasney and Taylor buried two safes in two separate locations. One safe, recovered from Sandy Hook, contained some of the proceeds from the robbery.
The second safe, located in a park in Wall, was empty, but was identified as the safe Stern used to hold cash inside her bedroom, the news site said.
In the confession video, which was shot in Curry's car using a camera set up by detectives, the defendant describes what happened to Stern in chilling detail.
McAtasney says he accompanied Stern to the bank, where she retrieved a portion of her money from a safe deposit box. When they got back to her home, he says, they began counting the bills.
When she went to lock the front door, he “choked her out” from behind and dragged her away from the door.
"My biggest problem was the dog," he tells Curry. "Her dog lay there and watched as I killed her. Didn't do anything."
NJ.com reported that Michael Stern and other family members held onto one another and cried as they listened to McAtasney’s account of what happened to Sarah Stern the night she was killed.
Once Stern was dead, McAtasney tells Curry, he went to work for his scheduled shift, but accidentally left his cellphone behind at Stern’s home. He ended up having to leave work a couple of times that night to search for the phone.
“Why did you take your phone out? You should have left it in your (expletive) pocket,” Curry says. “What were you doing?”
“Strangling someone,” McAtasney replies matter-of-factly.
He says he hid Stern’s body in the bathroom before leaving her house. Taylor later went to the Stern home and removed her body, hiding it in some bushes outside.
That’s where the pair retrieved her before driving her to the bridge after McAtasney was done with work. McAtasney tells Curry he buckled Stern’s body into the passenger seat of her own car before backing it out of her driveway.
He backed out in the same specific manner Stern always did so the security camera on a home across the street would capture the footage and police would believe she was driving herself.
McAtasney details the panicked moments when he "underestimated (his) own strength" on the bridge and was unable to toss Stern over the side as headlights loomed. He tells Curry he flung her body back into the car, upside down, until three vehicles passed.
Once the coast was clear again, Taylor helped him lift Stern over the side of the bridge and into the water below.
For his part in Stern’s death, Taylor faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of robbery, conspiracy, desecrating human remains, hindering apprehension and tampering with physical evidence.
McAtasney lamented being questioned by police in the video, but that was "not even the worst part," he says, according to NJ.com.
"The worst part of it is, I thought I was going to come out (with) $50,000 to $100,000 in my pocket," the defendant says. "She had one safe that she took money out, and she only had $10,000.
“And this money, I don’t know if it was burnt or something, it’s (expletive) old money. Terrible quality. I don’t even know if I can put any of it in the (expletive) bank.”
NJ.com reported that employees from Stern's bank testified that the money she kept in her safe deposit box appeared to be from the 1980s and no longer in circulation. She reportedly found the cash in a shoebox with a note from her mother.
Later in the video, McAtasney looks on the bright side.
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