A New Jersey college student convicted of murdering his childhood friend as part of a plot to steal her inheritance money was sentenced to life in prison without parole on Friday.
Liam McAtasney, 21, was found guilty in February of seven charges—including first-degree murder, felony murder, and robbery—after a two-year investigation into the mysterious death of Sarah Stern, 19, who was last seen on Dec. 2, 2016. McAtasney has maintained his innocence and declined to testify in his month-long trial.
“The pain of losing my only child grows worse with time,” Michael Stern, Sarah’s father, said through tears in court Friday. “My spirit was broken.”
Prosecutors argued that McAtasney murdered Stern over the roughly $8,000 stashed in her bedroom—but thought he was going to get $100,000 from the robbery. After strangling Stern for half an hour, McAtasney stole two safes and enlisted his roommate, Preston Taylor, to drive her car to a bridge above Shark River to cover up the crime, prosecutors said.
“He has no remorse. His tears today are fake and if nothing else, insulting,” Assistant Prosecutor Meghan Doyle said in court. “Maybe he’s scared, maybe he’s sorry he got caught, but there’s no remorse.”
Stern was last seen alive with McAtasney on Dec. 2, 2016, after the two spent the afternoon together, running errands and going to Taco Bell for lunch, prosecutors said. Less than 24 hours later, an Uber driver called authorities to report an abandoned car on a Route 35 bridge. The car, a 1994 Oldsmobile 88, belonged to Lillian Stern, Sarah’s grandmother. Neptune police launched a massive search party, which McAtsney and Taylor joined, but were never able to retrieve her body.
Two months into the search for Stern—who had just completed her second semester at Brookdale Community College, where she was studying art and TV production—the two were charged with her murder.
McAtasney’s attorney, Carlos Diaz-Cobo, argued that since the 19-year-old’s body was never found, there is no physical evidence proving the 21-year-old committed the crime.
“If we don’t have a body, and we have a witness who says he saw the individual hours and hours and hours after the state says she was killed, we do not have a murder,” Diaz-Cobo said.
The prosecution, however, countered the defense’s claim with a graphic, secretly recorded confession video of McAtasney and Taylor—who pleaded guilty as an accomplice in Stern’s death in a plea deal that required him to testify at his former roommate’s trial. Taylor faces up to 20 years in prison.
“Not having a body is not reasonable doubt when you have the two involved saying ‘We killed her, we threw her off the bridge, we took her money,’” Assistant Monmouth County prosecutor Christopher Decker said during the trial.
Taylor testified that his former roommate revealed Stern had the “type of money somebody would kill for” after McAtasney and Stern discovered a shoe-box full of cash in her family’s second home in Avon-by-the-Sea. The shoe box also contained a note explaining that the money was her inheritance.
“[We] specifically decided that Liam would strangle her,” Taylor testified in February, adding that the original plan was to get their friend drunk and steal the shoe box. “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, leaving her at the house, and then ultimately, we decided that the best way to go about it would be to make it look like a suicide.”
Hours after McAtasney strangled Stern, the duo allegedly propped their friend’s body in her car to make it appear as if she was sleeping in the driver’s seat, and took it to the bridge above Shark River. Taylor testified that the two pushed Stern’s body over the edge and left the keys inside of the car to make authorities believe she had committed suicide.
Anthony Curry, an amateur filmmaker and McAtasney’s former friend, also testified in court about his friend’s confession. After news broke of Sarah’s disappearance, Curry testified he went to police, who encouraged him to prompt a conversation about the murder and record it.
“She goes to walk out the front door. I choke her out, drag her. My biggest problem was the dog. Her dog laid there and watched as I killed her,” McAtsney said in the video, which was played in court. “We threw her off the bridge and her body never showed up.”
Diaz-Cobo argued Curry’s videotape proves that McAtasney is only guilty of making up the murder story in the video to impress his friend, who had just moved to Brooklyn, New York, to pursue a career in horror films.
“A beyond-immature boy, Liam was going to take this unfortunate story and make it up,” Diaz-Cobo told the jury. “It’s not believable—it’s impossible,” he said. “It’s a script and it’s not true.”