Father of N.J. Teen Allegedly Murdered By Best Friends Still in 'Shock' as Her Body Remains Missing

Sarah Stern was just scratching the surface of her artistic talent, her father said

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The father of the New Jersey teen who went missing last December and whose two lifelong friends are now charged in her death has spoken out, lamenting the loss of a daughter he described as an artistic talent who was just scratching the surface of her potential.

Speaking to The New York Times about his heartbreak following his 19-year-old daughter Sarah Stern’s alleged strangulation death, Michael Stern said he had a hard time believing he’d never see his daughter again.

“It was kind of a shock, to say the very least,” Stern told the Times, explaining he knew something bad had happened to Sarah because she would not have “left without telling anybody.”

Sarah Stern was last seen on Dec. 2, 2016, leaving her home in Neptune City, New Jersey. Since then, two of her closest friends — Liam McAtasney and Preston Taylor, both 19 — have been charged in connection with her presumed death, even though her remains still have not been recovered.

Sarah, her father said, was a budding artist who enjoyed attending comic book conventions and befriending social media luminaries.

“She just had a fantastic art teacher in high school, and her talent just blossomed over the last two or three years,” Stern said. “I would say, had her career continued, she would have become one of the top artists in the world.”

Source: Sarah Stern/Facebook

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Sarah’s 1994 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale was found the day after her disappearance on a bridge spanning the Shark River. The car was in drivable condition, with the keys still in the ignition.

Five agencies — including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Dive Team and the State Police — searched adjoining waterways, but were unable to find any sign of her.

A week later, dozens of people showed up to a search party to help find Sarah. They even consoled her father, who was desperate to find any sign of his only child.

Among the searchers were Taylor, who had been Sarah’s junior prom date, and McAtasney, police said.

Investigators allege that McAtasney robbed and strangled Sarah. Taylor was later allegedly enlisted to help McAtasney dispose of the teen’s body by throwing it off the bridge, into the frigid waters below.

Prosecutors further contend Taylor has confessed to his role in the alleged crime, saying the attack on Sarah had been planned for at least six months. According to court records, McAtasney allegedly told a friend he choked Sarah and then watched her die for “about 30 minutes.”

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The duo allegedly stole $7,000 from Sarah before she was killed.

McAtasney faces six charges: first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery, disturbing human remains, conspiring with another to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution. Taylor was also charged with three counts: disturbing human remains, conspiring to disturb human remains and hindering prosecution.

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Both men are being held without bond. They have not entered a plea to the charges against them.

McAtasney’s attorney, Charles Moriarty, had previously told PEOPLE his client “is completely innocent” of the allegations. Moriarty also says there’s no proof Sarah is even dead.

An attorney for Taylor did not return PEOPLE’s call for comment

A source tells PEOPLE that prosecutors will be presenting their case against McAtasney and Taylor to a grand jury, which should then render a decision on whether or not to indict one or both of them in April.

The Times spoke with Taylor’s uncle, who said his nephew is not capable of such a heinous crime.

“I have like an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, and I was trying to hide them away from all this stuff,” Steven Staloff told the paper, noting Taylor has babysat his children. “We were all out, we were out to dinner, and all of the sudden he was on TV … he’s not that kind of kid, man.”

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