Sarah Stern went missing in December 2016. The case has been investigated by a number of outlets including ABC News’ 20/20, which is re-airing the episode tonight, March 27, 2020.
Sarah Stern’s father was open with investigators and agreed to be interviewed on a number of programs if it meant bringing his daughters’ murderers to justice. The case was solved in 2019 when one of Stern’s childhood friends was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison.
According to The Washington Post, the investigation began after a passing Uber driver spotted Stern’s grandmother’s abandoned Oldsmobile at the crest of the bridge between Belmar and Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey. When officers arrived at the scene, they found the keys still in the ignition.
Here’s what you need to know about Stern’s death:
1. The Case Was First Looked at as a Possible Suicide
According to the Asbury Park Press, the case was looked at as a possible suicide with the police noting that the car had been driven to the bridge. When the police met up with Liam McAtasney, a friend of Stern’s who had recently dropped out of community college, he told the police that she had threatened to kill herself at least once before.
He also told the police that Stern had been arguing with her father for the few months leading up to her death and she had felt the need to get away from him.
ABC News reported that McAtasney’s mother Megan heard that Stern may have jumped off the bridge and was worried about her son immediately after since she hadn’t heard from him either.
“I just started screaming,” McAtasney said. “And the police were asking me if I had seen Liam, and then I broke down again because I thought that Liam was missing, too. And they assured me that they had seen Liam in the middle of the night when I directed them to go to Liam’s house.”
Two months later the police arrested Liam McAtasney, charging him with strangling Stern.
2. Her Murderer Joined Volunteer Search Parties
The Press reported at the time that hundreds of people came out to search for Stern during an 11-hour frigid day on one Saturday in December. Among those in the search party were Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor, who were both later arrested.
McAtasney was charged with first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery, disturbing human remains, conspiring with another to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution. Taylor was charged with disturbing human remains, conspiring to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution.
According to the outlet, there is a videotape that has been obtained where either McAtasney or his identical twin brother go on camera to speak of the search for Stern.
“She’s pretty strong,” the boy told a reporter. “So hopefully we’re gonna find something today.”
3. McAtasney Murdered Stern After Stealing Thousands of Dollars
McAtasney allegedly thought he would be able to get around $100,000 from Stern before her death.
It was reported that he was with Stern when she found a shoebox full of cash along with a note from her deceased mother at her family’s second home. As testified by Taylor, McAtasney told him there was $100,000 in the shoebox. “At first we started discussing the fact that it was a lot of money, what we would do if we had that type of money,” Taylor said. “And then the conversation evolved into, ‘Well, what if we did have that type of money,’ specifically her money. That was when the idea to rob her came about.”
They convinced Stern to withdraw money from the bank, and then McAtasney went back to Stern’s home and strangled her before stealing the money which was about $9,000.
The Washington Post reported that there was actually around $25,000 in the box and Stern had already used much of the money at the time of her death.
4. McAtasney Confessed to a Friend
In January 2017, McAtasney confessed to a high school friend that he believed there was somewhere between $50,000 to $100,000 in the money-filled shoebox that Stern had found.
The video, which was played in court and can be viewed online, contains a confession by McAtasney where he told the friend that he believed she had a lot of money, but it ended up being much less than he had originally expected.
“She only had 10G, and this money, I don’t know if it’s burnt or something, it’s old money, terrible quality,” he said on the video. “I don’t even think I can put it in the bank.”
He described how he killed Stern and went on to say he doesn’t think about it anymore and didn’t feel any different.
The same high school friend told police and later testified about a conversation he had had with McAtasney prior to her disappearance.
“He told me he was going to meet up with Sarah, she had found this money,” Curry testified as reported by NJ.com. “They were going to count it together. He was going to choke her, choke her out. Bring her to the bridge, throw her off and Preston was going to drive the escape vehicle. And they were going to bury the money, and leave the keys in the ignition and make it look like she killed herself.”
5. McAtasney Was Sentenced to Life in Prison
Preston Taylor was charged with helping McAtasney dispose of Stern’s body on a bridge and leaving her car there to make the death look like a suicide, and he later testified against McAtasney and called him a “Manson-like” person who controlled him like Manson did his cult followers.
McAtasney, who was 21 at the time, was sentenced to life without parole, plus 10 years, in June 2019.
Stern’s body has never been found, and her father, Michael Stern, said that he feels some justice but the sentencing wouldn’t bring Sarah back to him.
“Sarah’s death just haunts me,” he said. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
Tune in to ABC News 20/20 to watch the story of Stern’s life and death including the investigation into her murder.