‘We believe she was already dead:’ New details emerge in Madeline Soto case

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – The search for 13-year-old Madeline Soto ended Friday night when her body in the woods off a road in Osceola County, according to deputies.

Deputies said Madeline Soto’s body was found around 4:30 p.m. in the woods off Hickory Tree Road.

It was announced earlier in the day that detectives believed the 13-year-old Florida girl who had been reported missing earlier this week was killed at her Kissimmee home and that her body was moved by her mother’s boyfriend, the prime suspect in her disappearance, according to the Orange County sheriff.

Sheriff John Mina said during a Friday afternoon news conference that investigators are “confident” that Madeline Soto is dead. The girl’s mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Sterns, was arrested on Wednesday on charges stemming from “images and videos that were criminal, and sexual in nature” that were found on his phone during the investigation into the teen’s disappearance, deputies said.

Mina said teams are now working to recover the girl’s body.

Sterns previously told detectives that he had dropped the girl off near her school Monday morning. Mina said video evidence shows that was not the case, and instead Sterns was seen driving a vehicle with her body inside that day.

“We believe she was already dead at the time and that Stephan Sterns moved her body in the early morning hours on that day,” Mina said. “We have video evidence that shows Stephan Sterns discarding items in a dumpster in that apartment complex in Kissimmee at 7:35 a.m.”

The sheriff said around 8:19 a.m., detectives found the girl’s backpack and her school-issued laptop in a dumpster.

“We have evidence that shows Stephan Sterns returning to the complex and Madeline was visible in that vehicle. We believe she was already dead at that time,” he said. “As a result of that, although the initial missing persons investigation started in Orange County, the Kissimmee Police Department will now be taking over the investigation and will become the lead agency.”

The vehicle is a 2010 Lincoln MKC with the Florida tag “IYL-L82. Kissimmee police Chief Betty Holland said the vehicle was seen in the area of State Road 192 and Old Hickory Tree Road, and Old Hickory Tree Road and Nolte Road, from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday.

Stephan Sterns, suspected in death of missing 13-year-old Madeline Soto, was last seen driving the vehicle in this picture. (Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

“During this timeframe, it is believed that Sterns had a flat tire and might have been seen changing the tire in this area. If anyone saw this vehicle or notice anything suspicious, we’re asking that they call Crimeline,” she said. The Crimeline number is 800-423-TIPS or 800-423-8477.

During the investigation earlier this week, Orange County detectives found graphic images and videos of sex abuse on his phone and that the crimes depicted in those files happened at their Kissimmee home.

He is in the Osceola County jail after being transferred from Orange County. He currently faces charges of sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse material.

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