During a taped interview with a Monmouth County Prosecutor's office detective, Liam McAtasney asks "if she did jump off the bridge, what are the odds that she's not somewhere all the way out in the ocean by now." Thomas P. Costello
Liam McAtasney before a hearing in the death of Sarah Stern at the Monmouth County Courthouse in Freehold on Sept. 17, 2018.(Photo: Jeff Granit)
FREEHOLD – Liam McAtasney will stand trial early next year in the murder of his childhood friend, Sarah Stern, after rejecting the only plea bargain available to him.
McAtasney on Monday formally turned down a plea bargain calling for a life prison term without the possibility of parole. He said he will face trial in the murder and robbery of Stern, the 19-year-old Neptune City woman whose body has never surfaced following her disappearance in 2016.
“The defendant has elected to go to trial,’’ Meghan Doyle, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, told Superior Court Judge Richard W. English at a brief proceeding during which McAtasney acknowledged he can no longer negotiate for a plea bargain.
“We are ready to go forward with the trial,’’ said Carlos Diaz-Cobo, McAtasney’s attorney.
English scheduled McAtasney’s trial for Jan. 7.
“It’s good that it’s moving forward,’’ said Michael Stern, the victim’s father, who has expressed his disgust with previous delays in scheduling the trial.
McAtasney, now 21, of Neptune City is charged with murder, felony murder, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, desecration of human remains, tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension.>
Sarah Stern File photo of Sarah Stern (Photo: Courtesy Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office)
Doyle said McAtasney, without the benefit of a plea bargain, faces a total of life in prison plus an additional 15 years if he is convicted of all of the charges at trial.
Prosecutors allege McAtasney strangled his former high school classmate in her home on Dec. 2, 2016 and stole about $10,000 from her before driving her body to the top of the Belmar bridge and dumping it in the Shark River, with the help of Preston Taylor, his roommate at the time and Stern's date for the junior prom.
Authorities allege that McAtasney and Taylor left Stern’s car atop the bridge to make it look like she committed suicide.
Stern’s body has never surfaced, despite widespread searches following the discovery of her abandoned car atop the bridge in the early morning of Dec. 3, 2016.
Stern was classified as a missing person until January of 2017, when an acquaintance of McAtasney’s went to authorities and said that McAtasney approached him on Thanksgiving 2016 and told him of his plans to rob and murder her. The acquaintance, Anthony Curry, later secretly recorded a conversation of McAtasney admitting to just that and throwing Stern’s body off the bridge.
The break led to the arrests of McAtasney and Taylor, 21, of Neptune, who last year admitted he participated in the robbery plot and helped to dispose of the victim’s body for a $3,000 cut of the proceeds.
Taylor is required to testify against McAtasney at the upcoming trial in exchange for a recommendation of a 20-year-prison sentence that he is still awaiting.
English said the trial is expected to last 10 days, following jury selection, which is likely to take several days. A final pretrial conference will be held on Jan. 7, and attorneys will begin selecting jurors the following day, English said.
Kathleen Hopkins: 732-643-4202; Khopkins@app.com
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