FREEHOLD BOROUGH — Sarah Stern's father is optimistic about Liam McAtasney's first-degree murder trial -- which starts this week, a little over two years after the the young woman first disappeared.

Police in December 2016 found a car belonging to 19-year-old Stern's grandmother parked on the Route 35 bridge between Neptune City and Belmar. Despite extensive searches of the Shark River below and up and down the coast line, the Neptune City resident's body was never recovered.

Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni allege Sarah Stern’s classmates, Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor, threw her body off the Route 35 bridge. McAtasney is accused of Sarah Stern's murder itself. Both participated in the searches in the weeks before their arrest.

McAtasney is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, first-degree robbery, second-degree desecration of human remains, second-degree conspiracy(to desecrate human remains and second-degree hindering apprehension. Taylor, 19, also of Neptune City, accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to seven counts related to Stern’s robbery and death. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a felony murder charge, and he will testify against McAtasney.

Liam McAtasney (L) and Preston Taylor at their pre-indictment hearing in Freehold (Thomas Costello, Asbury Park Press pool photos)

"I'm okay. It's been tough the last few months with all the anticipation," Michael Stern told New Jersey 101.5. He said life has been overwhelming at times, with many emotional swings as the trial neared.

He said he has been "right in the middle of everything" in planning for the trial. He plans to be in the courtroom daily.

"There's an overwhelming amount of evidence of what happened plus there's witnesses who have already pled guilty to participation. Now it's just a process," Michael Stern said. But no verdict will bring Michael Stern the closure he has sought, especially since his daughters body was never found -- something he attributed to his Catholic upbringing.

"Honestly I don't think I'll ever get closure. This is just one thing that will be settled and I will be able to put it behind me. But without my daughter, my only child, it's just hard to get any kind of closure. That's been one of the roughest things," Stern said.

Stern put on a memorial and celebration of life display of his daughter's artwork in July 2017 and created a scholarship in her name. He hopes to use Sarah's creativity once McAtasney's trial is complete to make her a "champion for the arts and media."

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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