FREEHOLD, NJ — Investigators will continue to search the waters below the Route 35 bridge in Belmar, where it is believed Sarah Stern’s body was discarded after she was allegedly killed as part of a robbery plot by two longtime friends.
Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni made that announcement on Monday, shortly after the indictment of Liam McAtasney for the murder of the 19-year-old Neptune City woman and the guilty plea entered by Preston Taylor for his role in Stern’s death.
“Efforts to recover Sarah’s remains will continue,” he said, confirming that last Friday’s police activity at the bridge was part of the search for Stern, whose car was found abandoned early on December 3 atop the bridge — a day after she was last seen alive.
Gramiccioni said he is determined to find closure for Michael Stern, Sarah’s father, who was in court on Monday. During that proceeding,Taylor confessed to helping McAtasney hide and then throw Stern’s body from the bridge into the Shark River after McAtasney is alleged to have strangled and robbed her in her home.
“We are not going to give up the search,” Gramiccioni said. “One of the most important things we can do is give some closure to Mr. Stern and those who loved her by recovering Sarah’s remains.”
When those searches will occur depends on the river’s tides and weather conditions, he added. On Friday, April 22, the four-lane bridge than connects Belmar and Neptune City was closed from about 3:50 to 4:11 p.m., as investigators watched from atop the structure and a boat from New Jersey State Police Marine Bureau scoured the river waters below.
McAtasney, who through his attorney maintains his innocence in Stern’s death, was indicted by a grand jury for murder and six other charges — just hours after Taylor, his longtime friend, pleaded guilty to six charges and agreed to testify against the accused killer.
McAtasney, 19, of Neptune City was charged with murder, robbery, felony murder, conspiracy, disturbing or desecrating human remains, hindering apprehension and tampering with physical evidence. He is facing life without the possibility of parole. His trial is not expected until the end of the year.
As part of his plea arrangement, Taylor, 19, of Neptune City will testify against McAtasney who he said killed Stern as part of a plan to steal some $10,000 from her on December 2. As part of that plan, Taylor said he always knew that he would get $3,000 of Stern’s money when she was robbed. The pair split up Stern’s money, which was transferred from one safe to another. Stern’s original safe would be found buried in Shark River Park, Neptune, while the second safe was buried at Sandy Hook.
Taylor also testified that Stern’s body was discarded from the Shark River bridge, which is located just minutes from her home, to make it appear that Stern committed suicide.
Taylor pleaded guilty to robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, hindering apprehension (two counts), tampering with physical evidence and disturbing or desecrating human remains.
In accepting Taylor’s plea, Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Richard English set a July 21 sentencing date. Taylor faces up to 20 years in prison and would be required to serve 17 years of that term before becoming eligible for parole.
However, if he reneges from the plea deal and decides not testify against McAtasney, prosecutors said he would face felony murder, in addition to the charges to which he has admitted his guilt. This would leave him facing a prison term of 30 years to life.