Sarah Stern memorial disappears from bridge as father prepares ‘life celebration’
NEPTUNE CITY — A long, frustrating year continues for Sarah Stern's father as a makeshift memorial is mysteriously taken down from the spot where his daughter's car was found.
The memorial with posters and flowers appeared in February in the spot where Monmouth County Prosector Christopher Gramiccioni said Sarah Stern's classmates, Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor, allegedly threw the girl's body off the Route 35 bridge between Neptune City and Belmar.
Stern's family maintained the memorial for several months. Then, three week ago, Sarah's father, Michael Stern, noticed it was missing.
"It disappeared and no one seems to know (why). Can't figure it out," Michael Stern told New Jersey 101.5. "It wasn't anybody in the family. No friends. We've talked to probably 50 or 60 people who have put things up there in the last month or so. It just vanished."
Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty said the borough did not remove it. NJ Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Schapiro told NJ.com his agency, which maintains the span over the Shark River did not take it down either.
A new memorial went up on Monday with a framed picture of Stern and a simple bouquet of flowers.
Stern said no officials from either Belmar nor Neptune City had a problem with the memorial, which was on the sidewalk.
"It's a tribute to Sarah because we don't have her. If we had her we'd be able to have a grave site and a burial and a funeral," he said. "How do you do it without a body?"
Stern said he is confident his daughter's body will be found and he has personally talked to boaters and fisherman at the marinas in Point Pleasant, Belmar and Manasquan.
"They all know that Sarah is still out there someplace and they're hoping to find something too...it's a big ocean," Stern said.
It's been a tough couple of months as the case against McAtasney and Taylor makes its way through the justice system. After the prosecutor's office presented its initial case during his first appearance in court, Taylor took a plea deal from the state and agreed to testify against McAtasney, who maintains his innocence.
McAtasney's lawyer this week sought to delay the start of his client's case for 77 days. NJ.com reported that McAtasney’s lawyer filed two motions: one to suppress the video interview between “A.C” and McAtasney in which he describes how he and Preston planned Stern's death, and another to change the venue of the hearing.
Michael Stern called the delay "mind numbing" and is frustrated at the time the case is taking.
"We want to get past this," the father said. "We want to get through this and have a verdict. Somebody already pleaded guilty to it and this trial just seems to be...I don't know what it is. "If (McAtasney) had any compassion or his family did they'd tell him to plead guilty and just take his punishment and get on with their lives and put it behind them. This not guilty pleas is almost ludacris. A lot of other people feel this way too. I think Preston Taylor did the right thing and took his punishment. But he's not the one who killed Sarah."
He said the evidence is overwhelming in the case but understand that the "courts as they are apparently have to go through this. It's gotta be done properly but as a result everyone suffers, not just our side."
Michael Stern said his daughter's smile and spirit still lives within him and he will host a "life celebration" for her at the Neptune City Community Center from 1 to 8 p.m.
"We're going to as much of her artwork... and a couple thousand photographs from her childhood right up until we lost her," Stern said, adding that some of her teachers will be there to say a few words about her. "She was a great kid. She was loved by a lot of people."
A GoFundMe page has also been created for the Sarah Lee Stern Scholarship Fund for high school and college students to further their careers in arts and media.
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.