The childhood friend accused of strangling Sarah Stern and organizing her death to give the impression that her suicide was suicidal was sentenced on Tuesday after a month-long trial in Monmouth County.
Liam McAtasney, 21, of Neptune City, has been convicted of all counts – murder, robbery, desecration of human remains, conspiracy to desecrate human remains and hampers apprehension.
McAtasney looked straight ahead as the verdict was read, and his lawyer, Carlos Diaz-Cobo, said his client had tears in his eyes. "There is a call to make here," said Carlos Diaz-Cobo.
After reading the guilt, Stern's family members cried. The detectives on the case shook hands and kissed each other.
McAtasney now faces life imprisonment after serving a sentence on May 24.
The jury's decision was made one day after the commencement of the Superior Court's court proceedings at Freehold, where prosecutors presented 25 witnesses and the defense presented only three.
The trial began starkly on January 23 when key state witness Preston Taylor appeared at the bar shortly after the opening statements. Taylor, who was the date of the Stern Junior Ball, said that he had removed Stern's body from his home in Neptune City a few hours after McAtasney strangled him on December 2, 2016. He admitted to having helped her throw her body from the Route 35 bridge in Belmar with McAtasney and to have left her. Stern's car with the keys inside to give the impression that she jumped off the bridge.
Stern's body has never been found. The state introduced an expert on ocean tides from Rutgers University who said Stern's body had probably traveled 7 miles at sea in 24 hours.
Diaz-Cobo described his client as an immature young adult known for inventing stories. This was the case, said Diaz-Cobo, when McAtasney got into his friend Anthony Curry's car and described in detail by the collapse of how he had strangled Stern and timed his death. The confession was captured by a secret camera placed in Curry's car by detectives.
"It took me half an hour to kill her," McAtasney said in the video. "I thought I was going to choke her in a few minutes … she was having a seizure on the ground." I had a shirt and I pushed her down her throat so as not to vomit, she put my finger on her nose and programmed a timer. "
Diaz-Cobo told the jury that the confession was an elaborate lie to impress Curry, an aspiring horror filmmaker, and that McAtasney had presented film ideas to him in the past.
The video was broadcast before the jury shortly before the state case was concluded. Some parts were replayed by the jury at the presentation of the Monmouth County District Attorney, Christopher Decker. It aroused strong emotions in Stern's family every time he was played.
Throughout the trial, Michael, Stern's father, sat in the second row of the courtroom, flanked by Sarah's extended family. The McAtasney family sat on the other side of the courtroom.
In the audience room well, the defense table and the table where the two prosecutors, Meghan Doyle and Decker, were sitting were stacked. That's why it's almost impossible to see McAtasney's face during the trial. From time to time he leaned over and whispered in the ear of his lawyer.
One day, several friends of McAtasney sat in the courtroom and he turned to them and raised his thumb after they uttered his name.
But most of the time, he sat in silence and looked at Judge Richard English in front of him. The only time McAtasney spoke was to tell the English that his choice was to "stay silent" and not to testify.
The verdict puts an end to a case that took more than two years before being tried. The trial was delayed due to preparatory motions and hearings. McAtasney also fired his first lawyer, Charles Moriarty, and hired Diaz-Cobo in early 2018.
The state presented a case that relied on circumstantial evidence, leading Diaz-Cobo to assert that there was no hard evidence that his client had committed the murder. Plus, having no body in a case raises a reasonable doubt, said Diaz-Cobo.
McAtasney's fingerprints have never been found, said Diaz-Cobo. McAtasney said during her recorded admissions to Curry that Stern had urinated herself, but Diaz-Cobo was keen to ask each investigator if urine had been found somewhere on the scene. The answer of the main detective in the case, Brian Weisbrot, was no.
But the state was able to present evidence corroborating much of what McAtasney had said to Curry. McAtasney said the money he had stolen – about $ 10,000 – was old and looked like that of the 1980s. Attorneys showed the jury money recovered from a vault buried at Sandy Hook in which Taylor had driven them.
Detective John Sosdian testified that McAtasney accessed the stopwatch on his mobile phone at approximately 4:15 am on December 2, 2016.
However, the state mainly supported its arguments on the case of McAtasney's acknowledged accomplice, Taylor. He pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his friend and former roommate. He faces 20 years in prison at the time of his sentence.
Taylor described in detail on the witness stand how the Stern flight plan was set up after discovering a shoebox filled with money left behind by his late mother in a family home in Avon-by-the- Sea. McAtasney was with Stern when she found the money, Taylor said.
McAtasney thought that there was more than $ 100,000 in the shoebox, according to Taylor.
"At first we started discussing the fact that it was a lot of money, which we would do if we had this type of money," Taylor said. "And then the conversation evolved into" Well, what if we had that kind of money, "especially his money. It is at this point that the idea of stealing is born. "
McAtasney, in a subsequent conversation at the bar where Taylor worked, then made a shocking statement, according to his testimony: "This was the kind of money for which you would kill."
McAtasney was the last person to be seen with Stern on December 2, 2016. A neighbor, Carly Draper, testified that on that day, McAtasney was helping Stern move boxes and the two were going home. Draper said Stern and McAtasney talked about the possibility of moving together to Canada. Stern, an aspiring artist and celebrity fan on the Internet, had friends in Canada and she loved it, her family said.
However, Taylor said that moving to Canada between Stern and McAtasney was a way to convince Stern to withdraw some of his new fortune from a safe at the Kearny Bank in Bradley Beach. Prosecutors watched a Stern surveillance sequence at the bank on December 2, 2016, accessing his box.
Taylor also said that McAtasney, who was waiting in the car while Stern was inside the bank, had then told him that he was going to "get her out".
After the robbery, Taylor and McAtasney buried two safes – one at Shark River Park in Wall and another at Sandy Hook. Taylor took detectives to the two sites where they found the safes. A safe, recovered from Sandy Hook, contained the proceeds of the robbery. The other safe in Shark River Park had nothing, but it was the same safe where Stern kept some of the money in his room.
The lawsuit was plunged into chaos after the dismissal of two jurors as a result of a Facebook comment posted by one of them about his participation in the jury.
The case will now reach a national stage when specials will be broadcast on both "20/20" and "Dateline".
Alex Napoliello can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @alexnapoNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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