FREEHOLD — A contractor who said he saw Sarah Stern in a Bradley Beach alley the morning after she was reported missing was the first witness called by the defense in Liam McAtasney’s trial on Wednesday.

Stern disappeared in December 2016 after her car was found on the Route 35 bridge in Belmar. Prosecutors say McAtasney, who is charged with her death, and friend Preston Taylor threw her body off the bridge. Her body was never recovered.

Taylor has pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery, second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery, and second-degree disturbing or desecrating human remains, and agreed to testify against McAtasney.

According to coverage of Wednesday's testimony by the Asbury Park Press, Craig Hetzel said he saw Stern's car parked on the bridge as he drove his son to work. During the same trip, he testified they saw a well-dressed young woman at 5 a.m. along Main Street at Third Avenue in Bradley Beach, who appeared to not want to be seen.

Hetzel said he later saw a missing poster of Stern in the window of a 7-Eleven in Neptune and television news reports that matched the person he saw that morning, according to the report.

Under cross-examination, Hetzel denied that he spoke with an investigator from the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office about seeing Stern before reporting his sighting to police until February 2017.

The prosecution rested its case in the trial earlier Wednesday.

In a video played in court last week, McAtasney recounted in calm and cold-blooded detail how he killed Stern, a classmate he said he only pretended to befriend but in reality had spent half a year planning her demise. He also describes how he and Taylor, who went to the high school prom with Stern, took her body from her Neptune City home and dumped it into the Shark River Inlet.

Defense lawyers say McAtasney made up the entire story on the video because he wanted to impress the friend who recorded it, an experienced horror movie maker.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ.

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