FREEHOLD, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – Opening statements started Wednesday in the murder trial of a New Jersey man accused of killing his childhood friend and dumping her body in the ocean in December 2016.
Prosecutors say it was a scheme to steal money the victim’s deceased mother left her.
Liam McAtasney, 21, allegedly strangled Sarah Stern, 19, during a robbery at her Neptune City home and then, with the help of his roommate, tossed her body off the Belmar Bridge on the Jersey Shore.
Her body was never found, reports CBS2’s Meg Baker.
McAtasney’s roommate, Preston Taylor, who attended junior prom with Stern, confessed to helping cover up the crime. He took a plea deal and took the stand against McAtasney.
“It’s the type of money that somebody would kill for,” said Taylor, describing how McAtasney thought of the money the accused thought Stern had just come into.
Taylor said the plan was for the friends to split the $10,000 they allegedly stole from Stern. The group originally believed Stern had inherited $100,000.
“It started off as plans to either burglarize her house or to rob her personally,” said Taylor. “Over time the conversations progressed to killing her.”
McAtasney’s twin brother was in court as prosecutors described the night they say Stern was murdered in 2016.
“He said he’d killed Sarah and ultimately he needed me to go over to Sarah’s house and look for his phone and to move Sarah’s body,” said Taylor.
Taylor said the pair also did a “dry run” of the crime to time how long it would take to dump Stern’s body in Shark River and make it look like a suicide. The men used walkie-talkies and the SnapChat app to make sure their conversations were not recorded.
McAtasney and his defense attorneys argued Stern had an argument with her father and wanted to get away, possibly to California or Canada – “anywhere but here.”
Web Extra: Former Prosecutor Discusses The Trial
Cheryl Bader, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey and current law professor at Fordham University, says the lack of a body typically creates a “real uphill battle” for prosecutors, but that’s not the case here.
“I actually think in this case, the prosecutor has a lot of key, important evidence. And I actually think it’s the defense attorney that’s going to have the uphill battle here,” Bader said. “That’s one of the key pieces of evidence, is that they have the testimony of a cooperating witness who was the roommate of the defendant and he took a plea and said ‘I helped dispose of this body and threw this body into the river.’ The defense attorney is going to have to face why would somebody come forward and actually say they disposed of a body and plead guilty if they were lying.”
“Also, there’s a confession. So another friend taped a confession that the defendant gave that described how he actually sat there and watched her die,” Bader said. “That’s going to be pretty compelling testimony, when they hear the words of the defendant himself.”