In the early hours of 3 December 2016, a taxi driver called police to report an empty car that was parked on the Route 35 bridge in New Jersey, with the keys still in the ignition.
It was a 1944 silver Oldsmobile 88 that belonged to Lillian Stern – the grandmother of Sarah Stern, 19, who often borrowed the car.
Officers soon discovered that Sarah was missing.
The vehicle was in perfect working order, so there was no reason to abandon it.
It led police to believe that Sarah had taken her own life by jumping off the bridge.
A massive air, land and water search began, although experts knew it was unlikely they would find a body.
The fast currents of the Shark River below would have swept her body out to sea.
Still, desperate friends and family organised search parties and made pleas for more information.
They were sure there was more to her disappearance.
They didn’t believe Sarah would kill herself – she had too much to live for.
Talented Sarah was an aspiring artist who had just finished her second term at Brookdale Community College where she was studying art and TV production.
She lived with her dad, Michael, in Neptune.
Her mum had died three years earlier from cancer.
It had been heart-breaking, but Michael and Sarah had supported each other through it.
She was positive for the future and upbeat with everyone – why would she want to die?
One of the last people to see Sarah alive was her friend Liam McAtasney, 19.
They’d known each other since they were six years old, they both attended Neptune High School and continued to hang out afterwards.
Sarah and Liam were seemingly very close.
After her mum died, she’d confided in Liam that she’d found a shoebox containing thousands of dollars in cash hidden in her family’s second home in Avon-by-the-Sea.
There was a note explaining that it was Sarah’s inheritance from her mum.
They had talked about how the money would help Sarah with her dreams of becoming an artist.
Liam had gone to Sarah’s home on the afternoon before her car was found.
They had run errands and had lunch at Taco Bell.
Liam had a very different story about Sarah’s state of mind.
He claimed she had been talking about getting away and even moving to Canada.
He said that she’d tried to take her own life before, after her mum died, and she was upset about arguments she’d been having with her dad.
It was news to Michael, who alleged that the complete opposite was true.
Liam and his roommate, Preston Taylor, 19, joined the search for Sarah.
Preston had once taken Sarah to the junior prom and all three had been mates.
Now their best friend was missing.
But authorities weren’t so sure that Sarah had willingly jumped from the bridge.
So many who knew her said it was out of character.
Then they had a breakthrough.
Gruesome murder plot
Anthony Curry, 21, had attended high school with Liam, Sarah and Preston.
Anthony was a keen filmmaker, and he would often talk movie plots with Liam, who was also a fan of horror and loved coming up with ideas.
Anthony went to the police in January to say that just days before Sarah disappeared, Liam had talked to him about a story idea for a film.
It was about a man killing a girl by strangling her to death, then, with the help of a friend, throwing her off a bridge.
Anthony said he hadn’t thought anything of it until Sarah had vanished. ‘I just thought it was a movie,’ he later said of the story idea.
At first, he wanted to believe it was a coincidence.
They’d all gone to school together – how could Liam now be a killer?
But then Liam had reached out to him repeatedly, asking whether the police were asking about him and that he had ‘something to tell him’.
Was it possible that he had harmed Sarah?
The police asked Anthony to try to get Liam to confess.
Officers set him up with audio and visual recording devices in his car, and he drove to meet his friend.
Shockingly, Liam was all too willing to talk about what he’d done.
He said he’d planned the killing for months and the motive was Sarah’s inheritance.
Liam said he’d strangled Sarah at her home so hard, he’d lifted her off the ground and ‘pretty much hung her’.
He complained it took so long that he’d timed it.
‘It took me half an hour to kill her,’ Liam was recorded saying.
‘I thought I was going to choke her out in a couple minutes.
‘She was having a seizure on the floor.
‘I got a shirt and shoved it down her throat so she wouldn’t throw up, and held my finger over her nose and set a timer.’
Liam said he thought Sarah’s dog would be his biggest problem, but the dog just watched.
Incredibly, Liam complained that the money he stole wasn’t as much as he was expecting.
‘The worst part of it is I thought I was walking out [with] $50,000 to $100,000 in my pocket,’ he told Anthony, and moaned that the cash appeared ‘burnt or something’ and he was unsure a bank would take it.
Then he realised he’d need help dumping Sarah’s body off the Route 35 bridge because he didn’t realise how heavy she would be, so he called on his roommate Preston to help.
Liam hid Sarah in a bush, before going back hours later with Preston to get her in her own car, and set up the scene at the bridge to look like a suicide.
They heartlessly threw her over the edge, into the Shark River.
Liam and Preston were both arrested and Sarah’s dad was left reeling that two of her friends had killed her.
Liam insisted he was simply auditioning for a film when he talked to Anthony.
But Preston quickly confessed and turned on his roommate.
Searches continued for Sarah’s body, but it was never found.
Investigators did find a safe buried in a local park, containing thousands of dollars belonging to Sarah.
In April 2017, Preston pleaded guilty to his part in the killing, including throwing Sarah off the bridge.
He also agreed to testify against Liam at his trial early this year.
Liam pleaded not guilty and didn’t testify.
In court, prosecutors argued that Liam had killed Sarah for the $8,000 hidden in her room, but he believed he was going to get $100,000.
Liam’s defence argued that Sarah’s body had never been found and there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, and that his confession to Anthony was simply an attempt to get into filmmaking.
However, the prosecution had the graphic recorded conversation between Liam and Anthony, which was played in court.
‘Not having a body is not reasonable doubt when you have the two involved saying, “We killed her, we threw her off the bridge, we took her money,’’’ the prosecution argued.
Preston testified that Liam had told him that Sarah had the ‘type of money somebody would kill for’.
And that it had started off as a plan to rob her, and over time had progressed to killing her.
‘We decided that the best way to go about it would be to make it look like a suicide,’ he told the court.
Preston testified that they’d pushed Sarah’s body over the edge of the bridge and left the keys inside the car.
In February, Liam McAtasney was found guilty of seven charges, including first-degree murder, felony murder and robbery.
At the sentencing in June this year, Sarah’s dad Michael wore purple, his daughter’s favourite colour.
‘The pain of losing my child grows worse with time,’ he said tearfully.
‘I was devastated and numb from shock the day I learned from detectives Sarah was murdered.
‘I’ve had horrific dreams and nightmares.
‘The horrid act of what happened to her body haunts me every day.
‘I will never be able to hug Sarah again.’
The judge said, ‘This is really a heinous event since this involved two people who knew each other since grammar school.
‘He came up with this plan for six months prior and convinced someone else to take part.’
Liam, now 21, was sentenced to life without parole.
For the desecration of Sarah’s remains, the judge gave him an additional consecutive sentence of 10 years.
A week later, Preston Taylor, now 22, received 18 years.
‘So many things about this scenario I wish I could take back,’ Preston said.
‘I should have known better and done something to stop this and I wish more than anything I had.’
But Sarah’s murder was played out right to the end.
She died at the hands of a trusted friend she’d grown up with and a date she’d danced with at the prom.
All because of money her mum had left her, to help her have a better future.