Missing 13-year-old Florida girl is believed dead and mother’s boyfriend suspected of moving her body


The search for Florida girl Madeline Soto is now a homicide investigation as authorities announced she is believed to be dead and her mother’s boyfriend is suspected of moving her body.

The Orange County sheriff’s office previously said Madeline, 13, was last seen Monday morning when her mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Sterns, 37, dropped her off a few blocks from Hunter’s Creek Middle School in Orlando. 

Evidence now reveals she was never dropped off near her school that morning, Sheriff John Mina said in a Friday press conference

“We have video evidence that leads us to believe that she’s already dead,” Mina said. 

Sterns, who authorities call the “prime suspect” in the case, was arrested Wednesday night on separate charges of sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse material after detectives found “disturbing images” and videos that were “criminal, and sexual in nature” during a forensic examination of his phone.

It is believed Madeline was killed in Kissimmee, where her family lived in an apartment, and that Sterns moved her body in the early morning hours Monday, Mina said.

“We have evidence that shows Stephen Stern’s returning to the complex and Madeline was visible in that vehicle. We believe she was already dead at that time,” the sheriff said. Authorities did not state what time that footage was captured.

Video evidence recovered by authorities showed Sterns discarding items in a dumpster at the Kissimmee apartment complex at 7:35 a.m. on Monday February 26. Detectives later recovered Madeline’s backpack and her school-issued laptop from the dumpster.

Detectives informed Madeline’s mother about her suspected death Thursday night. She is not considered a suspect in the investigation.

The search for Madeline’s body is ongoing. Now that the case has transitioned into a homicide investigation, the Kissimmee Police Department will take over the case.

“Searches are continuing as we speak,” Mina said. “We have people who are working nonstop and so every lead that comes in, every piece of evidence that we receive, we’re going to follow up on that and if that leads us to a new search area, we’ll be out all weekend.”

Kissimmee Police Chief Betty Holland asked the public to come forward with tips.

Sterns was seen driving a silver 2010 Lincoln MKZ on Monday between 1 and 2:30 p.m. in the area of State Road 192 and Old Hickory Tree Road and Nulty Road. It is believed he had a flat tire and might have been seen changing the tire in this area. 

Chief Mina said Sterns has not spoken to anyone regarding the case. He has been moved to the Osceola County Jail where he’s being held on capital sexual battery charges filed by Kissimmee police.


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