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Police: Stepfather sexually abused Madeline Soto for years

Madeline Soto's body was found on March 1 by detectives after having last been seen alive on Feb. 26. Her stepfather is a prime suspect.
Madeline Soto
Posted at 9:26 AM, Mar 07, 2024

Days after the body of a missing 13-year-old Florida girl was found in a wooded area, no charges have been filed in her death; but her stepfather is facing charges that he sexually abused her, and that abuse may have gone on for years.

Madeline Soto’s body was found on March 1 by detectives after having last been seen alive on Feb. 26. Police named Stephan Sterns, identified in court documents as her stepfather, as a prime suspect in her disappearance. While he was charged with sexual battery of a minor, no charges have been filed in Madeline’s death.

In an affidavit obtained by Court TV, a detective for the Kissimmee Police Department said that Sterns consented to having his phone searched, but told officers that he “had accidentally performed a factory reset on his phone on February 26, 2024.”

Despite the deletions from Sterns’ phone, detectives said they found disturbing images and videos showing a child being sexually abused. The detective said that the characteristics of the room where the abuse happened matched those of a room inside Sterns’ home, where he lived with both the victim and her mother.

Metadata from the images indicated that they were recorded in Aug. 2022, when the victim was 11 years old.

Body of missing Florida teen found after mother's boyfriend charged
A photo of Madeline Soto next to a photo of her mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Sterns

Body of missing Florida teen found after mother's boyfriend charged

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.


At a news conference after Sterns’ arrest, detectives revealed that they had surveillance video showing Madeline in Sterns’ car and that they believed she was already dead in the video. Sterns told WFTV in an interview before his arrest, “I dropped her off. Everything looked fine when I drove away. That’s the last time we saw her.”

WFTV also spoke to Madeline’s mother, Jenn Soto, who gave an alternate version of events, saying that she was told that Madeline was “spotted walking by the church by the middle school on the cameras, and they saw her hang out in the parking lot for a little bit and get up and leave. They didn’t see a vehicle or anything else, they just see her walk away around 9 a.m. towards the school, but she never made it.”

Detectives have not revealed how Madeline died or what may have happened to her, only saying that additional surveillance video appears to show Sterns throwing Madeline’s school laptop and backpack into a dumpster, from which they were recovered.

Osceola County Sheriff Marcos López was forced to apologize after a photo of Madeline’s body was accidentally uploaded as part of a post to social media over the weekend. The photo, which was immediately removed, appeared to show her wearing clothes matching the missing person’s description, The Orlando Sentinel reported. Agency Executive Director Nirva Rodríguez was also forced to apologize after posting a selfie in front of Stephan Sterns to her personal Facebook page, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

While no charges have yet been filed for Madeline’s murder, Kissimmee police said they are diligently working to close the case. “Our detectives and forensic unit are working tirelessly to uncover the truth behind this heartbreaking incident. At this time, we are unable to release any further information as this remains an active and sensitive investigation. We understand the desire for updates, and we assure you that every effort is being made to get justice for Madeline.”

This was originally published by Lauren Silver at Court TV.