Liam McAtasney was sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering his childhood friend Sarah Stern in December 2016 and enlisting the help of his former roommate to toss her body over a New Jersey bridge.
McAtasney was also sentenced to an additional 10 years for desecration of human remains. That sentence will run consecutively.
In February, a Monmouth County jury found McAtasney guilty on all seven counts against him, including first-degree murder, conspiracy, desecrating human remains, tampering with evidence and other charges. He was accused of strangling 19-year-old Stern, his high school classmate, in December 2016 and enlisting her prom date and his former roommate, Preston Taylor, to help throw her body off a bridge in Belmar, New Jersey, according to authorities. Stern’s body has never been recovered.
Prosecutors argued that McAtasney killed Stern for the thousands of dollars that had once belonged to her mother, who died of cancer in 2013. They claimed McAtasney planned Stern’s death for six months and his aim was to get money from her lock box, which he believed was stuffed with cash.
Sarah's father, Michael Stern, wore a purple shirt Friday — his daughter's favorite color — as he read an emotional impact statement. He said his life has been in turmoil since the day his daughter disappeared.
"I was devastated and numb from shock the day I learned from detectives Sarah was murdered. I’ve had horrific dreams and nightmares," he said. "The horrid act of what happened to her body haunts me everyday. I will never be able to hug Sarah again."
Michael Stern spoke of all the people who will miss Sarah, but never addressed McAtasney directly. The defendant looked down during his statement, never making eye contact with Stern. But just moments later, when prosecutors described the details of his crime and argued for consecutive sentencing, McAtasney wiped tears from his eyes.
Prosecutor Meghan Doyle charged that his tears in court were fake and McAtansey has shown no remorse.
Defense attorney Carlos Diaz-Cobo argued McAtasney had no prior criminal history and other counts should run concurrent.
Judge Richard English ultimately sentenced the 21-year-old to life without parole plus 10 years, saying, "This is really a heinous event since this involved two people who knew each other since grammar school. He came up with this plan for six months prior and convinced someone else to take part."
Also present in the courtroom was Sarah’s classmate and Liam’s good friend Anthony Curry. In a sting operation with police, he secretly recorded McAtasney, capturing what prosecutors argued was McAtasney’s confessing to the crime. Curry made no comment.
English credited Curry with breaking the case: "If not for Mr. Curry, this could have been a cold case."
During the trial, jurors were shown a video of Curry’s hidden camera recording.
"It took me half an hour to kill her... The worst part of it is I thought I was walking out [with] $50,000 to $100,000 in my pocket," McAtasney said on the tape. "She had one safe that she took money out [of], and she only had $10,000."
"He was treating her life like a joke," English said.
English said "McAtansey made several mistakes even though he thought he was the smartest person. He didn’t count on [his former roommate and Stern's prom date] Preston [Taylor] giving up faster than anyone I’ve ever seen."
Taylor pleaded guilty earlier this year to first-degree robbery, second-degree conspiracy to commit robbery and second-degree disturbing or desecrating human remains.
Taylor, who testified against McAtasney, said McAtasney told him Stern had the "type of money somebody would kill for" and that he planned to get her drunk and take the money left by her mother.
Taylor will be sentenced next week to between 10 to 20 years behind bars.