No body, no murder? Waiting for jury’s verdict in Sarah Stern trial
FREEHOLD BOROUGH — Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Monday in the trial of a man accused of strangling a former high school classmate and throwing her body off a Jersey Shore bridge more than two years ago.
Monmouth County prosecutors allege that 21-year-old Liam McAtasney strangled 19-year-old Sarah Stern during a December 2016 robbery. He and a friend, prosecutors allege, then dumped her body off the Route 35 bridge in Belmar, leaving her car on the bridge to make it appear that she committed suicide.
Defense attorney Carlos Diaz-Cobo, however, told jurors in his closing argument Friday that there was reasonable doubt that the victim was dead because her body has never been found and a man testified seeing a live woman who looked like Stern in a Bradley Beach alley at 5 a.m. on the day she was reported missing.
"Without a body, there is no murder," Diaz-Cobo said.
Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Decker began his closing argument by saying "Sarah Stern is not in Canada. Sarah Stern did not kill herself. That is ridiculous. ... Sarah Stern, unfortunately, is not with us anymore."
Decker cited a secretly recorded conversation of the defendant talking about Stern's death with an acquaintance, and also the testimony of the friend, Preston Taylor, who pleaded guilty to charges including robbery and conspiracy and faces 10 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," Decker said.
The defense called McAtasney's statements in the video a made-up story intended to pitch a film idea to the acquaintance, a horror film maker. "It was a fantasy," Diaz-Cobo said. "It was an audition."
Decker, however, pointed to McAtasney's description of the approximately $8,000 taken from Stern as old in appearance, as if from the 1980s. That money, shown to the jury, was found in a safe buried on Sandy Hook that was recovered by detectives.
"He describes the old money," Decker said. "How would he know what Sarah Stern's money looks like?"
The keys for the safe, he said, were found on McAtasney when he was arrested.
Prosecutors are seeking a first-degree murder conviction against McAtasney, who chose not to take the stand on his own behalf.
In the video, McAtasney describes in chilling and emotionless detail how it took 30 minutes for him to strangle and suffocate Stern to death while her dog watched silently in her Neptune City home. He also describes how he and Taylor moved Stern's body in her car to the bridge over the Shark River Inlet and dropped her over the railing.