The murder of Sarah Stern: signals of guilty knowledge in Liam McAtasney’s early statements

Sarah Stern (CBS New York)

Sarah Stern, 19, was killed inside her Neptune City home in the afternoon of Friday December 2, 2016.

Monmouth County prosecutors said Sarah’s friend, Liam McAtasney, strangled her during a robbery attempt from which he thought he was going to get $100,000; he got about $8,000. After the murder, McAtasney and his roommate, Preston Taylor, dumped Stern’s body off the Route 35 bridge in Belmar and left her car on the bridge to make it appear a suicide. Her remains were never found.

Sarah Stern and Liam McAtasney

Preston Taylor, who attended junior prom with Stern, took a plea deal and testified against Liam McAtasney. During the trial Taylor said: “It started off as plans to either burglarize her house or to rob her personally. Over time the conversations progressed to killing her”.

Preston Taylor and Sarah Stern

On January 31, 2017, Liam McAtasney confessed to killing Stern to his friend, Anthony Curry, who secretly recorded him discussing the murder in vivid detail. Curry had previously reported to authorities that, on Thanksgiving, McAtasney had told him he had plans to rob and murder his friend Sarah Stern and throw her body off the bridge.

On June 17, 2019, Liam McAtasney was sentenced by Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Richard W. English, to Life in a New Jersey state prison without the possibility of parole, for first degree Murder. Judge English also sentenced McAtasney to a concurrent term of 20 years on first degree robbery, a consecutive term of 10 years on second degree disturbing or desecrating human remains and a concurrent 5 year term on third degree hindering.

Preston Taylor has not yet been sentenced. He faces up to 20 years in prison on counts including robbery, conspiracy, disturbing or desecrating human remains and hindering apprehension.

Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor

Let’s see if we can find signals of Liam McAtasney’s guilty knowledge in his early statements.

12 hours after the murder, on Saturday December 3, 2016, around 4:01, after an Uber driver called 911 to report Sarah Stern’s abandoned car on a bridge, Sgt. Bradley Hines went to Liam McAtasney’s house to question him about her, here the record of the conversation he had with him:

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Liam, you’re Liam? You’ve got a second? Can I come talk to you real quick?

Liam McAtasney: Yeah, no problem, officer.

Note that an officer woke up Liam McAtasney at 4:01 in the morning but he doesn’t seem worried at all, he doesn’t ask the reason why the officer is there, he doesn’t ask anything, nothing about his family, he sounds relaxed, this is unexpected.

Note the words “no problem, officer” Liam uses to ingratiate himself with the officer. 

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Is Sarah here by chance?

Liam McAtasney: No.

Note that, at this point, Liam doesn’t ask questions like “Why are you questioning me about my friend Sarah? What happened?”, this is also unexpected.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: When was the last time you talked to her?

Liam McAtasney: I was with her today.

The word “with” between people is distancing language. 

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Gonna turn some light on, if you don’t mind.

Liam McAtasney: I mean, we went to get food today.

Liam feels the need to spontaneously add “I mean, we went to get food today”.

“I mean” are unnecessary words, “I mean” is the equivalent of a pause. Liam shows a need to stall for time to think before speaking.

In the sentence “We went to get food”, “we” shows closeness and cooperation in this specific occurrence.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: And you went to work at what time?

Liam McAtasney: Uh… 4:30.

“Uh” is a pause.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Okay, so you haven’t talked to her since 4:30?

A suggestion, not a question. 

Liam McAtasney: No.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: You have a cell phone, you can reach to her on?

Liam McAtasney: No. Actually, I haven’t been able to find my cell phone.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Any idea where it is at?

Liam McAtasney: I’ve been calling it all day.

Note that Liam doesn’t answer the question, he is unable to say “No”, probably because he has an “idea where it is at“.

Stern’s cousins, Meagan Barr, found Liam’s cellphone next to a walkway beside the driveway in front of Stern’s home.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: What was her mindset the last time you talked to her?

Liam McAtasney: I just know she’s been trying to get away. She’s been telling me, she’s going to Canada.

Note the word “just”“just” is a dependent word, its communication is found in dependence upon another thought, Liam is comparing his knowledge about Sarah with something else.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Trying to get away. Okay. Canada. She’s been real depressed lately?

This is a “Yes” or “No” question.

Liam McAtasney: Her dad is… crazy.

Note that Liam doesn’t answer the question, he is unable to confirm that Sarah “has been real depressed lately”.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Okay, and then she’s dealing with the loss of her mother.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: You hear anything, call the Neptune City or Neptune Township Police Department, please let us know.

Liam McAtasney: Okay.

Note that Liam doesn’t ask the officer if he can join them in the search for his friend Sarah.

Sgt. Bradley Hines: Thank you.

Around 10:30 am of Saturday December 3, 2016, detectives questioned Liam outside his flat:

Sgt. Michael Kepler: Liam, I’m gonna get something in here, you know what’s going on here? You know why we are standing to talk to you?

Liam McAtasney: Yeah, I have a pretty good idea.

I believe him. 

Sgt. Michael Kepler: The resources that are out there right now looking for her, the amount of manpower, we have people swimming in the Shark river, in this cold water, we have boats we have helicopters, If you know anything about where this girl is, if you have any contact with her, you need to let us know.

Liam McAtasney: Believe me, officer (interrupted by the officer)

Note Liam’s desire to be believed.

Sgt. Michael Kepler: And exactly, what it was that you have spoke to her about yesterday afternoon before you went… she went her way, you need to open up and let detectives know everything.

Sgt. Michael Kepler: Has she been different, a normal lady or what?

Liam McAtasney: Well, in the past she has… had a tendency to… have self-destructive suicidal behavior, I… actually… I know about.

Note the word “Well” and the pauses. Liam shows a need to stall for time to answer.

Note that Liam first talks at the present “has” and then he corrects with the past “had”.

The presence of a stuttering “I” discloses tension and anxiety. The question is sensitive to him.

Note the word “actually”. “actually” like “just” is a dependent word, its communication is found in dependence upon another thought.

Sgt. Michael Kepler: How long ago?

Liam McAtasney: Years ago.

Liam McAtasney: Over the past few months, she has been telling me… excuse me… how bad the relation with her father is and how she… she just needs to get out of here.

Note the pause and the words “excuse me”, he shows anxiety here, so strong that he wasn’t able to talk. 

Sgt. Michael Kepler: Why was it bad? What made it bad?

Liam McAtasney: Fighting. 

Sgt. Michael Kepler: Arguing, fighting.

Liam McAtasney: Arguing, fighting, constantly, constantly.

Note the repetition, a signal that Liam has a need to persuade the officer that Sarah was “constantly” fighting with her father.

Det. John Mahoney: So, yesterday you guys went to Taco Bell (inaudible).

It’s a mistake to recap what an interviewed said previously. The officer should have asked Liam to recap for him what he did the day before.

Liam McAtasney:  Uhm, uhm.

To recap for an interviewed allows him not to speak.

Det. John Mahoney: You went to Taco Bell first or you went to the (inaudible)?

The officer is suggesting.

Liam McAtasney: Taco Bell first (interrupted by the officer)

To interrupt the flow of information is a mistake.

Note that the personal pronoun and the verb are missing here.

Det. John Mahoney: Then to the (inaudible)

To suggest is a mistake.

Liam McAtasney: (inaudible) (interrupted by the officer)

Det. John Mahoney: And you left.

Another suggestion, with this suggestion the officer badly contaminates the interview with the word “left”. We always look for the word “left” in an interview because when used as a connecting verb is an indication of missing information. 

Liam McAtasney: Then to her house.

No personal pronoun, no verb.

Det. John Mahoney: Then to her house.

To repeat what an interviewed said stops the flow of information and allows him to take time to think.

Liam McAtasney: Hung out, I left.

Note “hung out”, the personal pronoun is missing, a dropped pronoun means no commitment, a signal that Liam is psychological distancing himself from this action. 

We cannot analyse “I left” because the officer contaminated the interview.

Det. John Mahoney: What time was (inaudible)?

Liam McAtasney: Uh… 4:45.

“Uh” is a pause.

Det. John Mahoney: 4:45, and then you work till when?

Another suggestion. Liam didn’t say that he went to work after 4:45, the officer said so for him.

Liam McAtasney: I worked until uh… 10:00 o’clock. I was supposed to work till midnight, I get off at 10:00 o’clock uhm…

Note the pauses.

The officer should have asked why he didn’t work till midnight.

Det. John Mahoney: Then you just came back here?

Another suggestion. Liam didn’t say that he went home after work, the officer said so for him. “what happened then?” would have been the right question to ask.

Liam McAtasney: Ya, went back there.

Deceptive people often don’t use pronouns in their sentences. Note that the personal pronoun is missing here. Who went back “there”?, “There”, where?.

We note the word “there” because usually people parott the words of an interviewer and the officer said “here”, so there should be a reason Liam answered “there”.

We know that Liam killed Sarah’s at her house in the afternoon of December 2, then, later that night, went back to the crime scene with his friend Preston Taylor to get rid of her body, he had left into the bushes, and to stage a suicide leaving her car on the bridge. 

On December 6,  2016, three days into search for Sarah Stern Liam McAtasney was interviewed at the police station:

Detective: What’s the extent of your relationship?

Liam McAtasney: Uh… I would say, we’re pretty close friends.

Note the pause, he shows a need to stall for time to answer.

“I would say, we’re pretty close friends” is weaker than “we’re close friends”.

Detective: Okay… uhm… was she ever your girlfriend?

Liam McAtasney: No.

Detective: Did she ever talk about liking guys or?

Liam McAtasney: Not that I know.

Liam is unable or unwilling to say “No”.

Detective: Girls?

Liam McAtasney: No. She has been known to obsess over girls in the past though. She just always say stuff like: “Maggie, if you don’t come right now, I’m gonna kill myself”.

Liam McAtasney: One think I wanted to talk to you guys about some… uhm… if she… she did jump off the bridge, what the odds are that she’s not somewhere all the way out in the ocean by now?

“some…” is self censoring.

“uhm” is a pause.

Detective: Did she tell you she was going to jump off the bridge?

Liam McAtasney: No. If she had told me that I… that she was going to jump off the bridge, there would have been no way that I could have gone to work that night.

“that I…” is also self censoring.

Note that Liam feels the need to be seen in a positive light by presenting himself as a “Good Guy” to the detectives to avoid arousing suspicion. 

Liam McAtasney: Over the past few weeks uhm… she has been just packeging things up in containers and, you know, moving them to… other people’s houses.

The presence of “you know” is a signal of an acute awareness of the audience.

Detective: Do you believe… do you think her behavior was odd?

Liam McAtasney: Yeah. I didn’t think that at first but I… she always wanted to go to Canada.

“but I…” is also self censoring, a signal of suppressed information.

Liam McAtasney: She’s been saying she needs to get away, go to Canada. Get away from her dad.

Detective: Is she in Canada?

Liam McAtasney: I… I couldn’t telll you. I cannot honestly tell you that I’m one of her closest friends and I have no idea why she wouldn’t tell me anything before she left.

Note the stuttering “I”. The presence of a stuttering “I” discloses tension and anxiety. The question appears sensitive to him.

The word “honestly” is associated with deception, it indicates a change of sorts, for the subject. The presence of “honestly” is often an indicator that the subject has not been honest up to this point in the statement.

Detective: When did you last see Sarah?

Liam McAtasney: When I was leaving her house to go to work.

Liam could say “before going to work”, he chose to describing a prolonged action saying “When I was leaving her house to go to work” . Something that Liam doesn’t tell us happened at the time of his “leaving her house”, he killed her, according with the prosecutors.

Ursula Franco, MD and criminologist