By Andrew Ford, Kathleen Hopkins and Katie Park Published Feb. 4 by the Asbury Park Press
For more than 11 hours in near freezing temperatures one Saturday in December, people who loved Sarah Stern spread out across the Jersey Shore, hoping to find the missing 19-year-old.
Scores of people – from close loved ones to strangers who never met Stern – came out to follow up on the search efforts of a half dozen law enforcement agencies. The crowd joined Stern’s panicked father, who hoped he’d find his only child alive.
Little did Michael Stern know that among those searching were the two men who were charged in connection to his daughter’s killing this week. On that day, Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor, both 19, Sarah Sarah’s childhood friends, were counted among the worried crowd.
Today they stand accused in her murder. McAtasney was charged with first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery, disturbing human remains, conspiring with another to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution. Taylor, a friend of McAtasney, was charged with disturbing human remains, conspiring to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Michael Stern said. “Unfathomable. Deplorable. Disgusting.”
Authorities now believe Sarah Stern was robbed, strangled and thrown off the bridge on Route 35 in Belmar, which spans the Shark River. Her car had been found unattended at the crest of the bridge on Dec. 2, the keys still inside. Her remains haven’t been found, leaving her father unsure of how to proceed with her funeral.
But it may not be just the search volunteer sign-in sheet where McAtasney appeared in his search for Sarah.
There’s a videotape, obtained by the Press, where either McAtasney or his twin brother go on camera to speak of the search for Sarah.
“She’s pretty strong,” one of the McAtasney twins told the reporter that cold day in December, his face obscured in the video by a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses. “So hopefully we’re gonna find something today.”
Michael Stern heard McAtasney attended the search, but he said there were hundreds in the crowd. He hasn’t heard from McAtasney since that day.
And he still can’t believe that the boy he saw grow up with his daughter is now charged in her murder. Or that Taylor, the boy who took his beloved Sarah to the prom, is charged with helping to dispose of his daughter’s body.
It’s a betrayal that cuts to the quick, part of a nightmare that Stern struggles to live with every day.
“It’s just strange,” Stern said. “I can’t believe the deceit and lies.”
McAtasney and Taylor knew Sarah Stern since middle school, her father said. Parents would take turns driving carpool, and Michael Stern recalled driving McAtasney and his twin to school every couple weeks.
Taylor took Sarah Stern to junior prom, joined by McAtasney and other friends. A document posted on the Neptune Schools website shows the McAtasney twins and Stern volunteered at Bradley Beach Fire Company. They graduated from Neptune High School in the Class of 2015, a classmate said.
“One big, happy group,” Michael Stern said. “At that time. Don’t know what happened. Something. I guess people change. … Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.”
School community members were “shocked” and “extremely saddened” to hear of Sarah Stern’s death, said Tami Crader, superintendent of Neptune Township Schools.
“It is difficult to comprehend how and why a tragic event such as this happens,” Crader said in an email. “We have students and staff who are struggling with the details and we are providing counseling and support to hose members of our community.”
Sarah Stern’s peers are equally confounded by what happened.
“If you had a model of a best friend group, then that was them,” classmate Leanna Ross, 19, said of Sarah Stern, Taylor and McAtasney. “So I think that’s why the whole community’s confused. Especially like people in our class, who are all confused because they were like, that friend group was literally inseparable.”
Ross recalled being involved with that trio in a television media club at school, doing the morning announcements together. Sarah worked the camera, sometimes joining them in skits.
“They were all inseparable,” Ross said.
Ross said she was in class at college in Pennsylvania on Thursday when she saw the Asbury Park Press story of Taylor and McAtasney’s arrest on Facebook.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, and I still can’t wrap my mind around it. It was sickening. The rest of the day I couldn’t eat.”
The hardest part for Ross is trying to understand why this could have happened.
“All of them were so nice,” she said. “Nice to each other, funny, nice to me, nice to other people.”
Defendants remain in jail awaiting trial
McAtansey and Taylor are both being held in the Monmouth County Jail until their pretrial detention hearings, when Superior Court Judge David F. Bauman, the presiding judge of the criminal division in Monmouth County, will decide whether to release them or order them held without bail.
Taylor’s detention hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday. McAtansey’s is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Feb. 14.
On Thursday, Meghan Doyle, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, told Bauman she is seeking continued detention for both of the defendants.
Under the state’s criminal justice reform that took effect Jan. 1, there is a presumption that defendants charged with murder be detained pending trial, but a defense attorney can attempt to rebut that presumption at a hearing.
In court on Thursday, employees representing the court’s pretrial services unit recommended that McAtansey be detained, and that Taylor be released, with conditions.
According to state law, a judge can order that an eligible defendant be kept in jail until trial upon reaching a conclusion that no amount of monetary bail or conditions placed on the defendant would ensure the safety of the community and guarantee that the defendant would appear at trial and not try to obstruct justice.
Defendants charged with murder or any crime that would subject the person to an extended term of life imprisonment, or those with two or more prior criminal convictions, are eligible to be considered for detention, pending trial.
At a detention hearing for a murder suspect, the prosecutor could be expected to present testimony to show there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the murder, said William P. Cunningham, a Brick defense attorney and longtime, former assistant Ocean County prosecutor who is co-chairman of the criminal practice division of the Ocean County Bar Association. The defense attorney then could cross-examine the state’s witnesses, he said.
The defense attorney can present arguments for the defendant’s release, which can include the person’s ties to the community, lack of a prior record and good character, Cunningham said.
“The state has the obligation to present evidence sufficient for the judge to be justified to hold a person without bail,’’ Cunningham said. “The real key is on the proofs, and the danger to the community and the victim if the defendant is released.’’
If a defendant is released, a judge can impose conditions on the release, including monitoring by an electronic bracelet, drug testing, remaining arrest-free and reporting to pretrial services personnel, Cunningham said.
Stern’s online life lives on
Sarah Stern loved interacting with online personalities and her online presence remains. Sarah’s last profile photo on Facebook shows her with Grace Helbig, a YouTube celebrity. Stern’s Twitter account displays her artwork, including portrayals of online figures. She posted photos of her meeting the people she admired online and photos of her dog, Buddy.
Stern’s loved ones have also taken to the internet, posting messages expressing support for her family and grief about her death. After news of her death broke, Jenna Marbles, another YouTube celebrity, tweeted condolences to Stern’s family.
Neptune City Mayor Robert J. Brown posted on the borough’s Facebook page.
“Today our hearts are heavy,” Brown wrote Thursday. “Our community is shaken. It’s important to grieve and talk to your friends and neighbors. Please keep the Stern Family in your hearts and prayers. Please respect their time to grieve. I want to thank all of the law enforcement agencies, first responders and volunteers that helped when called upon. God Bless Neptune City.”
Stern’s father said he’s grateful for the support of the community and news coverage of his daughter.
“We appreciate everything, between me and the family, that the media’s done in trying to help with finding Sarah,” Michael Stern said. “It’s very heartfelt and appreciative too. Beyond whatever words can say.”
Stern remains committed to finding his daughter.
“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “We just have to find out where she is and hopefully with enough help and enough resources we’ll be able to find Sarah, bring her home and let her rest in peace. Put this whole ordeal behind us and try to go on as a family. That’s the best I can hope for.”