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Crime News Dateline

New Jersey Man Chillingly Timed How Long It Took Him to Murder Friend in Cold Blood

“I don’t feel any different. And I don’t think about it,” a disappointed Liam McAtasney told a friend of how little the murder of Sarah Stern impacted him.
By Jill Sederstrom
Liam McAtasney

It took 30 minutes for Sarah Stern — a beautiful and talented 19-year-old artist — to die at the hands of one of her closest friends.

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Liam McAtasney knew, he’d later confide to a friend, because he timed the murder with a stopwatch on his phone, according to Dateline: Unforgettable.

“I thought I was going to be able to choke her out and have her out in, like, a couple minutes,” he coldly said of the killing. “That’s the only time I had my phone. And it took me like half an hour after I hit start on the timer.”

What Happened to Sarah Stern?

Stern and McAtasney began the afternoon of Dec. 2, 2016 the same way they had many other days during their years-long friendship, even stopping to grab a bite to eat. But after returning to Stern’s Neptune City, New Jersey home that afternoon, McAtasney snuck up behind her and “pretty much hung her.”

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“I picked her up, and had her just, like, dangling off the ground, and she just said my name and then that was it,” he callously told friend Anthony Curry, in what he didn’t realize at the time was a recorded conversation.

Curry, a burgeoning horror filmmaker and former high school classmate of Stern’s, agreed to help authorities nab McAtasney after the college student casually mentioned the plan to kill his friend on Thanksgiving night, about a week before Stern disappeared. Curry dismissed it as nothing more than brash talk, until he learned that Stern had disappeared under eerily similar circumstances.

Liam McAtasney

An old Oldsmobile Stern borrowed from her grandmother was found abandoned overlooking the Shark River on Dec. 3, 2016. Her friends and family were left wondering whether the teen had taken her own life in a moment of pure desperation or whether there was something more sinister behind the disappearance.

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The teen’s final horrifying moments were finally discovered after Curry’s father reached out to investigators and the teen agreed to try to get McAtasney to confess during a beachside talk in his car around midnight as the cameras secretly rolled.

“It was chilling, I mean, we looked at each other, we couldn’t believe what we were hearing,” Det. Michael Bonanno told Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison.

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McAtasney calmly told Curry that he and another teen, Preston Taylor, who had been Stern’s junior prom date, spent months planning the killing after Stern unexpectedly found a large sum of money. Stern’s mother had died a few years earlier after a long battle with cancer and Stern stumbled upon thousands of dollars she had hidden in one of the family’s properties. She was planning to use the money to move to Toronto, where she wanted to practice her art and pave a new path for herself.

“She fell in love with the city,” her dad, Michael Stern, said.

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But Sarah Stern would never get the chance. On the day of the murder, McAtasney convinced Stern to take out a portion of the money from a safe deposit box where she was storing it. Then he killed her and stole the money.

The plan was for McAtasney to drive Stern’s car to the bridge, where he’d toss Stern's body over before Taylor picked him up, and the pair would make a clean getaway. But McAtasney underestimated the weight of a dead body.

“I got up on top of the bridge to throw her off … And I go up, open the door, unhook her and pull her out, start dragging her to throw her over, and then cars start coming up. I seen, like, headlights coming. I try to get her over and I can’t,” McAtasney told Curry of the panicked few moments.

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Taylor arrived and helped his friend toss the body over the bridge railing before they took off. But as McAtasney admitted to Curry, the robbery didn’t exactly go off like he planned.

“The worst part of it is, I thought I was walking out, 50 grand, 100 grand in my pocket … And I didn’t — I didn’t even get a quarter of it,” he said, adding that he ended up with around $7,000.

McAtasney then coldly explained that the killing had little effect on him.

“I don’t feel any different. And I don’t think about it,” he said. “You always think you’re gonna try these new things, and you’re gonna change.”

Liam McAtasney Sentenced

The cold-blooded confession gave investigators enough evidence to arrest Taylor and McAtasney. It also played a critical role in convicting the 21-year-old as Stern’s stunned family watched the video recording in horror during McAtasney’s trial.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Michael Stern said. “Evil, pure evil.”

McAtasney’s defense attorney, Carlos Diaz-Cobo, tried to dismiss the recording as nothing more than a teen telling a tall tale and pitching a movie to his filmmaker friend.

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“There was no evidence to support what he said in that car, as chilling and as horrifying as it is,” Diaz-Cobo said.

But the jury didn’t buy it and McAtasney was found guilty of murder and six other charges against him, earning him a life sentence without parole.

“None of it makes any sense, but when it comes to Sarah, it’s important that, you know, justice is served,” her father said of the verdict.

Taylor, who testified against McAtasney, got 18 years for his role in the killing.

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In the years since the brutal killing, the case continues to “haunt” Morrison, who has reported on hundreds of cases in his career, because of the cold-blooded nature of the betrayal.

“The way Sarah was used, casually thrown away, how those young men could do that to anybody is beyond any normal understanding — but she trusted them,” he said. “There was something about Sarah, so interesting, curious, talented, artistic, acquainted with grief of her own, yet ready to fly. There was nothing cookie cutter about Sarah. What a life she might have led.”