Police: Video shows Stephan Sterns moving limp body into trunk

Posted at 3:48 PM, June 12, 2024 and last updated 9:49 AM, June 12, 2024

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (Court TV) — Hundreds of pages of investigative documents and reports into the disappearance and murder of Madeline Soto are revealing the mountain of evidence police have gathered against her accused killer, Stephan Sterns.

A girl stands in front of a blue background.

Madeline Soto was last seen on Feb. 26, 2024. (Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

Madeline, 13, was reported missing on Feb. 26 — just one day after her birthday party. Her mother, Jennifer, told police that Sterns, her boyfriend, had taken the teenager to school that morning. But Madeline never made it to school and police found her body in a wooded area days later on March 1. Sterns was charged with her murder and additionally faces dozens of charges of sexual abuse for more than 1500 disturbing images and videos of Madeline that were found on his phone.

Court TV reviewed more than 800 pages of documents released by the Osceola and Orange County Sheriffs’ Offices, which offered more information not only about Sterns’ changing stories but also about the physical evidence police found near the teenager’s body.

Finding Madeline’s Body

Madeline’s body was found near a line of bamboo trees less than 100 feet from the road where Sterns had been seen with a flat tire on the date she disappeared. Officers who first noticed her said she was wearing a green hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans, and that her body was covered by “pieces of hay or dry grass.” The medical examiner determined that her body was in a “state of decomposition with visible insect activity around her mouth, left eye, ears and right hand.”

The documents do not offer any clues as to Madeline’s cause of death, but WFTV Investigative Reporter Shannon Butler told Vinnie Politan that her sources have told her that Madeline was strangled.

The Tale of the Tapes

Investigators detailed video evidence that proved to them that Sterns was lying about his alleged timeline for the day Madeline was last seen alive. Though Sterns had told police he dropped Madeline off near her school at approximately 8:30 a.m., investigators said their surveillance showed him driving with Madeline’s dead body in the car nearly an hour before. In one video, where Sterns can be seen throwing trash bags into the compactor at Jennifer’s apartment complex, police said Madeline is in the car and “appeared to be completely slumped over and with her mouth ajar.” When they searched the compactor, detectives found Madeline’s school laptop, backpack and a trash bag containing one of her shoes.

Video from traffic cameras allegedly shows Sterns taking a completely different route than the one he reported to deputies he took on Feb. 26, and at one point his car can be seen pulling into a garage near Holiday Inn Club Vacations. Once in the garage, “the male walked to the front passenger side of the vehicle, opened the door, and proceeded to carry what appeared to be a limp body to the trunk of the vehicle.”

Inside the Soto House

Sterns had previously lived with Jennifer and Madeline Soto at their home but told officers that he had moved out in December 2023 to take a job his father had gotten for him. Besides Jennifer and Madeline, there were also at least two other people living in the home as their roommates.

Investigators served a search warrant on the property early in their investigation and noted immediately that the rooms in the home matched the background of many of the images of child sex abuse allegedly found on Sterns’ phone. Deputies also noted finding “masturbation cream” in Sterns’ room, along with a Sig Sauer weapon, ammunition and a black wallet with a chain spelling “Natalia” containing credit cards in multiple names.

Stephan Sterns booking Photo

Stephan Sterns was charged two days after 13-year-old Madeline Soto disappeared. (Osceola County Sheriff’s Office)

Jennifer told officers that she allowed her daughter to share a bed with Sterns and that on the night before Madeline disappeared, she had sent the two to sleep together. Sterns told deputies that he had arrived at the home while Jennifer was still at work and “just in time to make sure she was doing all her nightly routines.” Jennifer said she saw her daughter when she arrived home at 11 p.m. on Feb. 25 and sent the two off so she could sleep alone and get more rest.

A woman who identified herself as Sterns’ ex-girlfriend contacted deputies and said that she had stopped speaking to him after he talked about sharing a bed with the teenager. She told police, “Stephan Sterns justified this behavior by saying he needed to cuddle with her so she could fall asleep. [The ex] further recalled a conversation she had with Stephan Sterns where he told her that he woke up in the bed with [redacted] with an erection and had to turn around in the bed.”

Interviews with Friends and Family

Interviews with friends, teachers and others who knew Madeline revealed a sweet girl who was kind to others. Described as having anxiety, her friends had difficulty imagining why she would run away and said she didn’t have problems with anyone. One unidentified 13-year-old told deputies, “(Redacted) told me that [Madeline] typically got her menstrual cycle two days before she did, except for last month when [Madeline] got hers “a week or two” after [redacted] got hers. … They did not have a conversation as to why her menstrual cycle was late. [Redacted] believed [Madeline] was a virgin and she did not ever see or hear anything to the contrary.”

The documents were released days after prosecutors announced they intend to seek the death penalty in Sterns’ murder case.