This story was reported and written by David Matthau and Sergio Bichao

NEPTUNE CITY — After college student Sarah Stern disappeared from her Monmouth County home and her family's car was found with the keys still in the ignition on the Route 35 bridge in early December, loved ones hoped — prayed — for a holiday miracle.

Many had kept their hope alive until Wednesday when they heard the unthinkable: The bubbly 19-year-old had not run away. She had not killed herself.

Investigators revealed Sarah Stern had been murdered. Her body was thrown into the Shark River Inlet. And most inconceivably of all, prosecutors say it all had been done by the hands of two of her friends.

“Everyone is devastated by it. I’m devastated," said Daria Johnson, a friend of Stern and a former classmate of the two 19-year-old men accused of killing and dumping Stern's body.

"It’s just because no one deserves to get killed but Sarah was such a sweet person,” she said.

“She was really funny all the time. Always kept our spirits up. Was always positive about stuff. We always went on trips together and she always kept everyone happy."

(Lauren Bahr)

Prosecutors have accused of Liam McAtasney of strangling Stern at her home during the course of a robbery on Dec. 2 in which money and other valuables were stolen.

McAtasney's friend, Preston Taylor, who went to the high school prom with Stern, then helped take Stern's body to the Belmar bridge and throw it into the water, according to a criminal complaint signed Wednesday.

The two will remain at the Monmouth County jail until bail hearings for Taylor on Feb. 7 and for McAtasney a week after that. Because McAtasney is charged with murder, it is likely a Superior Court judge will keep him locked up until his trial.

Stern's family — including her father, who appeared in the Freehold Borough courtroom where his daughter's accused killer and accomplice made their first appearances Thursday — may never get the closure of providing her with a proper burial.

Suspect Preston Taylor and Sarah Stern in 2014. (Facebook/Sarah Stern)

"We have not recovered Sarah’s remains and the chances of that happening I think are slim," Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni conceded Thursday. "Because of the way oceanic currents are, we believe that her remains might have been swept out of the river into the Atlantic.”

Despite a lack of a body, Gramiccioni is confident his office will be able to obtain indictments against the defendants, and eventual convictions.

“We were able to break this case open. We’re comfortable with the proof and the charges we’ve brought," he said, declining to provide further details about what led investigators to the suspects.

“We received some confidential tips and information through a host of different sources," he said. "It’s a puzzle and you try to find pieces to the puzzle and as you continue to put pieces in that puzzle, things start to fall into place.”

“I just feel terrible for the Stern family, this is the worst way to end it in such tragic fashion.”

FLASHBACK: Volunteers in Ocean Grove get instructions on their search for Sarah Stern. (Bud McCormick)

Stern was avid member of a YouTube community and enjoyed arts and sports, her friends said.

During her time in high school, Stern was on the swim team, participated in track and field and played softball.

Johnson said she was doubly devastated about the news Thursday “because I knew the two boys; both of the boys went to my school."

“The guys were actually nice people. I had a class with Preston, chemistry class, and he seemed like a real cool person."

Johnson added Preston was considered by many to be a "stoner."

"We would never think he would be capable of doing something like that," she said.

"For it to turn out like this is horrible. Everyone was hoping for the best, and we didn’t get that.”

Contact reporter David Matthau at

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