By Kathleen Hopkins, Asbury Park Press
Sarah Stern’s accused killer insists “he did nothing wrong” and will go to trial in a case that exposes him to life in prison without the possibility of parole, his attorney said today.
Defense attorney Charles Moriarty entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of his client, Liam McAtasney, 19, of Neptune City, when he appeared this morning for an arraignment before Superior Court Judge Richard W. English on seven charges, including Stern’s murder.
McAtasney is accused of robbing and strangling Stern, 19, a former classmate at Neptune High School, and enlisting his roommate to help him throw her body off the Belmar Bridge.
(Liam McAtasney, the 19-year-old man accused of murder, conspiracy and other charges in the death of a young New Jersey woman told a friend he choked her and then watched for half an hour as she died in her home, prosecutors said at a court hearing in February 2017. Courtesy of Wochit News and YouTube. Posted Feb 14, 2017)
Meghan Doyle, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, said the only plea offer extended to McAtasney is for him to plead guilty to all seven crimes he is charged with in exchange for a recommendation that he be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“That makes life easy,” Moriarty said of the offer, after the arraignment. “What can you do but try the case?
“I don’t think anything can be worked out in this case because he still maintains he did nothing wrong,” Moriarty said of his client. English scheduled an initial conference in the case for July 10.
Prior to the arraignment, Moriarty briefly spoke to his client in the courtroom. McAtasney shook his attorney’s hand and then signed some paperwork, his hands cuffed together.
The defendant nodded to his twin brother and mother who were seated in the back of the courtroom.
Stern’s father, Michael, sat with his attorney in the front row and left without commenting.
McAtasney was indicted on seven charges on April 24, the same day his onetime roommate, Preston Taylor, 19, of Neptune admitted his role in Stern’s demise and agreed to cooperate in McAtasney’s prosecution.
Stern, also of Neptune City, went to the junior prom with Taylor.
The indictment against McAtasney charges him with murder, robbery, felony murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, disturbing or desecrating human remains, tampering with physical evidence, and hindering his own apprehension.
An aggravating factor contained in the indictment — that the murder was committed while in the course of a robbery or flight from one — enables prosecutors to seek life in prison without the possibility of parole for McAtasney if he is convicted of Stern’s murder.
Hours before McAtasney was indicted, Taylor pleaded guilty to six crimes — robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, disturbing or desecrating human remains, tampering with evidence, hindering his own apprehension, and hindering McAtasney’s apprehension.
(Preston Taylor, 19, pled guilty to 6 charges in the Sarah Stern murder case, which include robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, disturbing or desecrating human remains, tampering with physical evidence and two counts of hindering apprehension, during a plea hearing before Judge Richard W. English at Monmouth County Courthouse in Freehold, NJ Monday April 24, 2017. Courtesy of CBS New York and YouTube)
Prosecutors said they will recommend a 20-year prison term for Taylor and agreed not to pursue a felony murder charge if he fully cooperates in McAtasney’s prosecution.
In entering his guilty plea before English, Taylor said McAtasney had been plotting Stern’s murder for months to steal an inheritance she recently received.
Taylor told the judge he hid Stern’s body under a bush after McAtasney said he strangled her on Dec. 2, and he and McAtasney later returned to retrieve her body.
McAtasney drove Stern’s body to the Belmar Bridge in the victim’s car, and Taylor followed in his own car, Taylor said. They threw her body into the Shark River and left her car atop the bridge to make it look like she had committed suicide, he said.
(Learn More, courtesy of CBS New York and YouTube. Posted Feb 7, 2017)
Then they went home and put a safe containing $10,000, taken from Stern, in the attic of the Neptune City home where they were living, Taylor said.
Taylor said his cut of the proceeds was $3,000, and McAtasney’s was $7,000. They later buried the money in a safe at Sandy Hook, he said.
The discovery of Stern’s car atop the bridge about 2:45 a.m. on Dec. 3 prompted a widespread search for her body. The case remained a mystery until the arrests of McAtasney and Taylor in early February.
Stern’s body has not been recovered.