Madeline Soto’s body found after mother’s boyfriend charged

Posted at 10:48 AM, March 1, 2024 and last updated 2:45 PM, March 4, 2024

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. (Court TV) — Investigators announced Friday night that they had located the body of missing 13-year-old Madeline Soto.

photo of a smiling girl next to a man walking in white jumpsuit

Stephan Sterns (R) was taken into custody two days after Madeline Soto (L) disappeared. (FDLE/Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Madeline Soto had last been seen on the morning of Feb. 26, when her mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Sterns, was supposed to drop her off at school. He told police that he dropped her off a few blocks away at 8:30 a.m.

When Madeline’s mother went to school at 4:30 p.m., she learned that her daughter never arrived at school. Orange County Sheriff John Mina said that their investigation revealed that Madeline had left her phone at home that day.

During their investigation, detectives said they found “disturbing images” on Sterns’ phone. The images were described as criminal and sexual in nature, and detectives said the crimes were committed at the family’s home. Investigators said on Friday that they also have surveillance video showing Sterns throwing items into a dumpster, including Madeline’s backpack and laptop. Surveillance video also shows Sterns with Madeline in his car, and deputies said they believe she was dead in the video.

In an arrest affidavit obtained by WFTV, police said that Sterns did a factory reset on his phone on Feb. 26. The sheriff’s office said, “A review of the phone’s data revealed attempts to delete evidence.”

Sterns was charged on Feb. 29 with sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse material.

“Stephan Sterns had an opportunity tonight to come clean with detectives and help lead them to information about Maddie’s disappearance,” Mina said.

Mina said at a news conference that Madeline, who goes by “Maddie,” had a message on her phone saying that she intended to “go live in the woods” when she turned 13 on Feb. 22. Detectives said they had more than 100 people searching and had focused much of their attention on wooded areas for that reason.