Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor were the two young men convicted in the murder of their high school friend, Sarah Stern, in order to steal money from her. Stern disappeared in December 2016 and her body was never recovered. The investigation into her murder is the subject of tonight’s episode of 20/20 on ABC. It airs at 9 p.m. ET.
A jury in Monmouth County, New Jersey, found McAtasney guilty of murder and other charges in February 2019. Prosecutors said he strangled Stern and then called Taylor for help disposing of her body. McAtasney is serving a life sentence in prison.
Taylor cooperated with investigators and pleaded guilty to charges including robbery, desecrating human remains, and hindering apprehension. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Taylor admitted on the witness stand that he and McAtasney had discussed robbing Sterner after she found up to $100,000 that her late mother had left for her. But after the murder, they found approximately $8,000 instead.
Here’s what you need to know.
Liam McAtasney’s High School Friend Anthony Curry Recorded Him Confessing to the Murder
Investigators were initially struggling for clues after Sarah Stern disappeared. Her car had been abandoned at the Route 35 bridge in Belmar, New Jersey, with the keys still inside. There were no working surveillance cameras at the bridge, 20/20 reported.
Stern was last seen alive with her longtime friend Liam McAtasney, and police questioned him immediately. He indicated Stern had been feeling depressed and had not been getting along with her father. He even joined in a community search for Stern.
But this all turned out to be an elaborate ruse. Another high school friend, Anthony Curry, came forward in January 2017 and told investigators about a conversation he had with McAtasney about one week before Stern vanished. Curry is a filmmaker and said McAtasney had approached him with an idea for a murder movie. The idea was for the main character to strangle a girl and then dump her body over a bridge.
But after Stern disappeared, Curry began to suspect McAtasney was hiding something. He said McAtasney was reaching out to him often and wanted to meet up and talk. Curry contacted the police and told them about the “movie plot” conversation he’d had with McAtasney. He agreed to participate in a sting operation.
The police installed cameras and audio equipment in Curry’s car. In the clip, which was part of the 20/20 broadcast, McAtasney was heard confessing that he had killed Stern. He explained in detail, “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.” The video was played for the jury during McAtasney’s trial, NJ.com reported.
Curry told ABC that it seemed that McAtasney had “wanted to get it off his chest” and tell someone what he had done. Curry said he chose to come forward because it was the right thing to do. “I didn’t do it for fame and notoriety… I was doing it to bring closure to a family.”
McAtasney’s Lawyer Argued His Client Had Fabricated a Story For Anthony Curry, But the Jury Disagreed With That Theory & Convicted McAtasney of Murder
Liam McAtasney’s attorney, Carlos Diaz-Cobo, tried to argue that his client’s confession to the murder of Sarah Stern had been a lie. He described McAtasney as a person who was known to make up stories and that his client had been trying to impress his filmmaker friend, NJ.com reported. Diaz-Cobo insisted to the jury, “The statement to Anthony Curry is not a confession. It’s an elaborate lie, it’s an audition. It’s a script. It’s not true. … A young, immature boy decided he was going to use this unfortunate disappearance and make up this story.”
But the jury did not find that version of events credible. After the sting operation, Preston Taylor began cooperating with investigators and confessed that he and McAtasney had discussed robbing Stern. Taylor had also explained on the witness stand that McAtasney told him ahead of that that he was going to “take her out” and then called him afterward for help disposing of her body.
In June 2019, McAtasney was sentenced to life in prison. News12 New Jersey reported at the time that McAtasney was visibly emotional during the hearing, and that no one spoke for him during the sentencing. According to the Daily Beast, Assistant Prosecutor Meghan Doyle alleged in court that McAtasney was not sorry for killing Stern. “He has no remorse. His tears today are fake and if nothing else, insulting,. Maybe he’s scared, maybe he’s sorry he got caught, but there’s no remorse.”
Preston Taylor Argued to Have His Prison Sentence But the Judge Rejected the Appeal
Preston Taylor pleaded guilty to several charges related to Sarah Stern’s murder, including desecrating human remains, robbery, and tampering with physical evidence. He also agreed to testify against Liam McAtasney. The plea deal included a prison sentence between 10 and 20 years.
Superior Court Judge Richard W. English sentenced Taylor to 18 years in prison in June 2019. The judge called Taylor’s actions “evil.” He told the court that Taylor was just as culpable as Liam McAtasney because he “did everything but put his hands around (Stern’s) neck.”
Taylor apologized to Stern’s family during the sentencing hearing and expressed remorse for not doing anything to stop the murder. According to the New Jersey Department of Correction, Taylor will be eligible for parole in May of 2032.
In August 2019, Taylor pushed to have the sentence reduced. His defense attorney, John Perrone, argued that his client was not likely to commit another crime after serving his sentence, the Asbury Park Press reported. Judge English denied the request.
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