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Community shocked as woman's friends charged in her killing

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/02/2017 Andrew Ford , Kathleen Hopkins and Katie Park
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ASBURY PARK, N.J. — For more than 11 hours in near freezing temperatures one Saturday in December, people who loved Sarah Stern spread out across the Jersey Shore, hoping to find the missing 19-year-old.

Scores of people — from close loved ones to strangers — came out to follow up on the search efforts of a half-dozen law enforcement agencies. The crowd joined Stern’s panicked father, who hoped he’d find his only child alive.

Little did Michael Stern know that among those searching were the two men who would be charged in connection to his daughter's killing. On that day, Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor, both 19, Sarah Sarah's childhood friends, were counted among the concerned crowd.

"It's just unbelievable,” Michael Stern said. “Unfathomable. Deplorable. Disgusting."

Authorities now believe Sarah Stern was robbed, strangled and thrown off the bridge on Route 35 in Belmar, N.J., which spans the Shark River. Her car had been found unattended at the crest of the bridge Dec. 2, the keys still inside. Her remains haven’t been found, leaving her father unsure of how to proceed with a funeral.

But it may not be just the search volunteer sign-in sheet where McAtasney appeared in his search for Sarah.

There's a videotape, obtained by the Asbury Park Press, where either McAtasney or his twin brother go on camera to speak of the search for Sarah.

“She’s pretty strong,” one of the McAtasney twins told a reporter that cold day in December, his face obscured in the video by a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses. “So hopefully we’re gonna find something today."

Michael Stern heard McAtasney attended the search, but he said there were hundreds in the crowd. He hasn’t heard from McAtasney since that day.

And he still can't believe that the boy he watched grow up with his daughter is now charged in her murder. Or that Taylor, the boy who took his beloved Sarah to the prom, is charged with helping to dispose of her body.

It's a betrayal that cuts to the quick, part of a nightmare that Stern struggles to live with every day.

"It's just strange,” Stern said. “I can't believe the deceit and lies."

McAtasney and Taylor had known Sarah Stern since middle school, her father said. Parents would take turns driving carpool, and Michael Stern recalled driving McAtasney and his twin to school every couple of weeks.

Taylor took Sarah Stern to junior prom, joined by McAtasney and other friends. A document posted on the Neptune Schools website shows the McAtasney twins and Stern volunteered at Bradley Beach Fire Company. They graduated from Neptune High School in 2015, a classmate said.

"One big, happy group," Michael Stern said. "At that time. Don't know what happened. Something. I guess people change. … Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse."

Sarah Stern’s peers are equally confounded by what happened.

"If you had a model of a best friend group, then that was them,” classmate Leanna Ross, 19, said of Sarah Stern, Taylor and McAtasney. “So I think that's why the whole community's confused. Especially like people in our class, who are all confused because they were like, that friend group was literally inseparable."

Ross recalled being involved with that trio in a television media club at school, doing the morning announcements together. Sarah worked the camera, sometimes joining them in skits.

"They were all inseparable,” Ross said.

Ross said she was in class at college in Pennsylvania on Thursday when she saw the Asbury Park Press story of Taylor and McAtasney’s arrest on Facebook.

“I couldn't believe it,” she said. “I couldn't wrap my mind around it, and I still can't wrap my mind around it. It was sickening. The rest of the day I couldn't eat."

The hardest part for Ross is trying to understand why this could have happened.

"All of them were so nice,” she said. “Nice to each other, funny, nice to me, nice to other people."

McAtansey and Taylor are being held in the Monmouth County Jail until their pretrial detention hearings, when Superior Court Judge David F. Bauman, the presiding judge of the criminal division in Monmouth County, will decide whether to release them or order them held without bail.

Taylor’s detention hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday. McAtansey’s is scheduled for 9 a.m. Feb. 14.

On Thursday, Meghan Doyle, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, told Bauman she is seeking continued detention for both of the defendants.

Stern's online life lives on

Sarah Stern loved interacting with online personalities and her online presence remains. Sarah’s last profile photo on Facebook shows her with Grace Helbig, a YouTube celebrity. Stern’s Twitter account displays her artwork, including portrayals of online figures. She posted photos of her meeting the people she admired online and photos of her dog, Buddy.

Sarah Stern © via Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office Sarah Stern

Stern’s loved ones have also taken to the internet, posting messages expressing support for her family and grief about her death. After news of her death broke, Jenna Marbles, another YouTube celebrity, tweeted condolences to Stern’s family.

Neptune City Mayor Robert J. Brown posted on the borough’s Facebook page.

“Today our hearts are heavy,” Brown wrote Thursday. “Our community is shaken. It’s important to grieve and talk to your friends and neighbors. Please keep the Stern Family in your hearts and prayers. Please respect their time to grieve. I want to thank all of the law enforcement agencies, first responders and volunteers that helped when called upon. God Bless Neptune City.”

Stern’s father said he’s grateful for the support of the community and news coverage of his daughter.

"We appreciate everything, between me and the family, that the media's done in trying to help with finding Sarah,” Michael Stern said. “It's very heartfelt and appreciative too. Beyond whatever words can say."

Stern remains committed to finding his daughter.

"That's the most important thing,” he said. “We just have to find out where she is and hopefully with enough help and enough resources we'll be able to find Sarah, bring her home and let her rest in peace. Put this whole ordeal behind us and try to go on as a family. That's the best I can hope for."

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