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Sarah Stern (left) has been missing since Dec. 2. Two of her former classmates, Liam McAtasney (center) and Preston Taylor (right) were charged in connection with her murder. Stern's body has not been found. (Photos: Courtesy of Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office)

The lawyer for a New Jersey man accused of murdering his missing friend and dumping her body off the Belmar Bridge says his client told an acquaintance about plans to strangle and kill the alleged victim only as part of a horror film plot.

Charles Moriarty, defense attorney for 20-year-old Liam McAtasney, told a superior court judge Wednesday his client was “always making things up to be more interesting,” and was working on a horror film with an acquaintance when he mentioned robbing and strangling 19-year-old Sarah Stern, who has been missing since Dec. 2, 2016, according to the Associated Press.

Neptune City police arrested McAtasney in February 2017 and charged him with first-degree murder, first-degree robbery and second-degree charges of desecration of human remains, among other charges, as previously reported by Forensic Magazine. Investigators allege that McAtasney killed Stern, robbed her of $10,000 and then enlisted another friend, 20-year-old Preston Taylor, to help dump her body over the bridge and into the Shark River.

Police found a vehicle belonging to a family member of Stern abandoned on a shoulder of the bridge, prompting an extensive search of the river for her body, according to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office. Investigators never located a body, but made the arrests following a two-month investigation that included information from the acquaintance, Anthony Curry, who prosecutors say also secretly recorded a confession by McAtasney, as reported by the Asbury Park Press.

Moriarty has called the purported confession “scripted” and is pushing to have the recording excluded in McAtasney’s upcoming trial, according to the Asbury Park Press. In earlier statements to police just days after Stern’s disappearance, which were recorded on body cameras and played for the court on Wednesday, the defendant claims Stern was “trying to get away,” had “suicidal behavior,” had a bad relationship with her father and was planning to move to Canada.

McAtasney’s lawyer pointed out two reports of people saying they had seen Stern alive after Dec. 2—Monmouth County prosecutor Meghan Doyle said these accounts had been investigated and deemed not credible, according to the Asbury Park Press.

Taylor, who police say helped McAtasney dispose of the body, pleaded guilty to robbery, conspiracy, desecrating human remains and hindering apprehension in April, in an agreement with Monmouth County prosecutors who dropped felony murder charges against him in exchange for his testimony against McAtasney.  

Taylor and McAtasney were friends with and attended the same high school as Stern, according to the AP. Prosecutors say McAtasney planned Stern’s murder for six months after hearing that she had inherited money from her grandmother, and gave Taylor a share of this money for his help in dumping her body. 

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