“Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.”
It was the 3rd of December 2016. At around 2.45 am, an Uber driver drove along the Shark River in Belmar and saw a car parked. The driver sensed that something was wrong and notified the police. The car, a '94 silver four door Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight, was peculiar in the way that it was parked. It was parked at the crest of the Route 35 Bridge that connected Belmar and Avon-By-The-Sea in Belmar, New Jersey, United States.
When police arrived, the keys were still in the ignition but there was no sign of anyone inside or near the car. The car looked fine and worked perfectly. They traced the car back to 96 year old Lillian Stern and discovered that her granddaughter, 19 year old Sarah Stern, drove it frequently. Police needed to find out where Sarah was urgently especially as the car was on a bridge overlooking the Shark River. Had she fallen in? They needed to know.
Sarah's father, Michael, told police he had been trying to contact Sarah all night, he sent her numerous texts. He had no idea where she was. He was on vacation in Florida at the time.
Sarah and Michael
As police searched for Sarah and talked to her friends about her, a picture began to emerge of Sarah. Police called to the home of Liam McAtasney at 4am that morning. He was close friends with Sarah. They were friends since first grade and had met at the age of just 6 years old at Sunday school. Liam described Sarah as being very depressed of late and said that she was packing up her things and wanted to get away and move to Canada. He said that her father was crazy. Police were also aware that her mother had died of cancer in 2013 and Sarah was the only child. Liam told police that she was suicidal. This caused concern as the spot where the car was parked indicated that she may have taken her own life and if she did jump off the bridge into Shark River, they feared that she would have been swept out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Route 35 Bridge
The search for Sarah in the Shark River and the area surrounding it revealed no clues as to what happened to Sarah. There was a surveillance camera under Route 35 bridge that police thought would assist in their investigation but unfortunately it had not worked for years.
Police spoke with Liam again. Not only was he close to Sarah but they believed he was one of the last people to see her as they met for food on the 2nd of December so they wanted to figure out her exact state of mind and whether this was a suicide case. That day, the 2nd of December, they went to Taco Bell together, ran a few errands and then went back to her house. Liam said he left that afternoon for work and that was the last time he saw Sarah.
Sarah Stern's neighbour had a surveillance camera and it showed Liam leaving the house late afternoon. This was in line with what Liam told police. He told them he left her house in the afternoon to go to work. Later that night, the camera showed that Sarah's car reversed out of the driveway. It was almost 11.45pm. They could not see who was driving the car. The car was next seen on the bridge and Sarah was missing. It was believed by some that Sarah drove to the Shark River and took her own life.
Some of Sarah's other friends didn't believe she took her own life or ran away. Most didn't describe her as depressed, they saw her as full of life and "happy go lucky". Furthermore they knew that if she was going anywhere she would have taken her much loved dog, Buddy, with her. Buddy was locked in a cage at her house the night she went missing. He was starving. It was so out of character for Sarah to leave Buddy. She loved him the most.
Despite their belief that Sarah would not have left of her own accord without Buddy, the search for Sarah was called off. Police and the community searched the entire area and nothing at all was found. It was beginning to look like Sarah's disappearance would remain a mystery.
That all changed in January 2017 when two of her closest friends were implicated.
Police got a break in the case when Anthony Curry contacted them.He believed he knew what may have happened to Sarah but he wasn’t sure. Liam had told him a story previously and it was playing on his mind so he had to share the details with police.
He was a friend of Liams and told police that on Thanksgiving evening, Liam told him he planned to kill a girl. He said that he would strangle her and throw her off the bridge. He told Anthony that it was a plot for a movie. When Anthony later discovered Sarah was missing, he feared the worst. The similarities were striking.
Anthony assisted the police in their investigation and on the 31st of January 2017, he agreed to secretly record Liam.
It didn’t take much to get a confession. Liam wanted to talk and he wanted to tell Anthony exactly what happened to Sarah. He described her death in detail, even down to her calling out his name a number of times.
In the recording Liam said:
"and it took me a half hour to kill her. I thought I was going to be able to choke her out and have her out in like a couple of minutes."
Liam described choking Sarah until she had a seizure. He choked her with such force that her body was dangling in the air. When she had a seizure , he stuffed a shirt down her throat and held his finger over her nose. He timed it and that's how he knew it took 30 minutes. He told Anthony that with the help of another friend, Preston Taylor, they threw Sarah's body off the bridge. He said that he had watched how Sarah drove the car beforehand and when he went back after work, he backed out of the driveway , just as she would normally do and her body was in the passenger seat of the car.
Preston and Sarah
The very next day, police arrested Liam and Preston. Sarah, Liam and Preston were all classmates at Neptune High School. They were very close. Sarah had never dated Liam or Preston but Preston had taken Sarah to the prom just the year before so the implication that they may have been involved not only in her disappearance but possible death shocked the two beach front communities of Belmar and Avon-By-The-Sea.
Unlike a lot of cases involving a young woman, the motive was not a sexual one. The motive was money. As soon as Liam had discovered Sarah had money, he set about planning how he would get that money and he would get it by any means necessary.
Police knew they needed more than the recorded confession to put forward a solid prosecution case as they still did not have Sarah's body. They got the lucky break they needed. While Liam refused to talk or answer any of their questions, Preston confessed to his involvement and told police everything. Preston pleaded guilty to throwing Sarah's body from the Route 35 bridge, to robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, tampering with physical evidence and two counts of hindering apprehension. In a devastating blow to his friend Liam, he agreed to testify against him at his Trial.
Preston in Court
At Liam's Trial, Liam was charged with murder, felony murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery, hindering apprehension, tampering with evidence and disturbing human remains. He entered a plea of not guilty.
Liam at his Trial
Even though Sarah's body still had not been found, the case was strong. The Jury heard about the motive and the actual murder and the aftermath in Liam's own words via the recorded confession.They also heard from Preston who told the Court everything that had happened. He said that on the 2nd of December, Liam returned to the house , they were roommates at the time, and he told Preston that he strangled Sarah. They went back to the house that night , drove her body in the car to the bridge , threw her into the river and left her car on the bridge to make it look like she commit suicide. Their plan almost worked.
Preston and Liam in Court
Liam's defense was that the recording that Anthony took was simply Liam telling Anthony about a plot for a film. Anthony was a filmmaker. He also argued that Preston was a liar.
Liam was found guilty on all seven counts and was sentenced to life without parole. He was sentenced to an additional ten years for desecration of human remains and those sentences will run consecutively.
Liam in Court
Sarah had been cruelly betrayed by two of the people she trusted the most.
For six months, Liam had planned an attack on Sarah. While she was spending time with him, confiding in him, making plans with him and saw him as the friend she had known since first grade, he was figuring out a plan to steal her money and kill her. Liam believed that Sarah had around $100,000. He knew that after her mother died, she got some money but the money Sarah had was nowhere near that. It was less than $10,000.
While Preston did not murder Sarah, as the Judge pointed out in Court, he did everything but put his hands around her neck. He knew about the plan and was a willing participant. At any point, he could have sought help to prevent it from happening.
Unlike Liam, Preston Taylor expressed remorse for his crime and said at his sentencing hearing:
“There's so many things about this scenario I wish I could take back and make right,I should have known better and done something to stop this, and I wish more than anything I had. I’m sorry.”
Those words were too little too late and as he spoke, Michael left the Court. He did not want to hear any explanations, excuses or apologies.
Preston was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Sarah's body has still not been found and her father has to live on without his wife and without his only child. Michael said:
"I was devastated and numb from shock the day I learned from detectives Sarah was murdered. I’ve had horrific dreams and nightmares,the horrid act of what happened to her body haunts me everyday. I will never be able to hug Sarah again."
His words express that it isn't just the loss of his beautiful daughter that he has to endure but the haunting memory of what happened to her and the fact that her body has not been found. That is solely down to the callous actions of Liam and Preston. They discarded her body as if she meant nothing to them.
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