Sarah Stern hasn’t been seen since Dec. 2, when she left her New Jersey home in her grandmother’s 1994 Oldsmobile. The next day, her vehicle was found on a bridge nearby, the keys still in the ignition.
Her body was nowhere in sight.
Nearly two months after the aspiring artist’s mysterious disappearance, police said Stern was murdered and arrested two of her closest friends in connection with her death — accusations that her father reportedly called “unbelievable” and “disgusting.”
Liam McAtasney faces six charges for allegedly strangling Stern, including first-degree murder, while Preston Taylor allegedly helped dispose of her body. He faces three charges, including disturbing human remains and hindering prosecution.
Here are five things to know about the case, which is featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
1. The Victim Grew Up with Her Accused Killer
Stern met McAtasney and Taylor when the three were in middle school. The trio, all 19, became fast friends, often acting out skits together at Neptune High School near the Jersey Shore.
According to classmates, Stern referred to the other two as her “besties.” They were inseparable. “They knew each other’s locker combinations,” friend Morgan Randall tells PEOPLE. “They were super close.”
The three were even part of a group that went to the junior prom together in 2015. Taylor was Stern’s date.
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2. Her Friends Allegedly Wanted to Rob Her
Police say McAtasney and Taylor plotted to rob Stern of thousands of dollars before murdering her. In court last week, prosecutors said Taylor had implicated McAtasney in his interviews with police.
Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Meghan Doyle alleged that Taylor and McAtasney were in phone communication on the night of the murder.
After Stern was killed, prosecutors claim that Taylor met up with McAtasney and helped get rid of her body: One of them allegedly drove Stern’s car to the bridge with her body in the passenger seat, while the other followed in his own car.
An attorney for Taylor did not return calls for comment, while McAtasney’s attorney says that his client is innocent and “had nothing to do with it.”
• For more on Sarah Stern’s disappearance, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
3. Witness Allegedly Recorded McAtasney Discussing the Murder
In court on Tuesday, prosecutors laid out horrific details of Stern’s death: Doyle alleged that McAtasney told a witness he had choked Stern and watched her die for “about 30 minutes.”
The prosecutor also claimed that the witness, identified only as A.C., recorded their conversation.
Doyle said that McAtasney allegedly told the witness “he had planned it for weeks leading up to [her] death.”
4. McAtasney and Taylor Helped Search for Stern
A week after Stern vanished in December, her father organized a search party. Dozens of people showed up — including McAtasney and Taylor.
“They said they were looking for answers,” says Randall, their classmate, who notes that the two posted flyers on social media and searched bushes near the bridge where Stern’s car was found.
According to friends, no one was surprised that they aided in the search. “I mean, they were best friends,” Randall tells PEOPLE. “It would be surprising if they hadn’t tried to find her.”
5. Stern’s Body Is Still Missing
Five agencies — including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Monmouth County Sheriff’s dive team and the New Jersey State Police — have searched the waterways but have been unable to find Stern’s body.
While McAtasney’s attorney tells PEOPLE Stern might still be alive, prosecutors disagree.
“She was murdered,” Doyle said in court, “and her body was dumped by her friends.”
McAtasney is charged with first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery, disturbing human remains, conspiring with another to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution. Taylor is charged with disturbing human remains, conspiring to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution.
Both men are being held without bond. They have not yet entered a plea.