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Body of missing Florida teen found, suspect named

By Mandy Donalds
|
March 2, 2024

The search for 13-year-old Madeline Soto concluded on Friday when her body was discovered in a secluded woodland in Osceola County, Florida.

This discovery was made by search teams from the Osceola County Sheriff's Office around 4:30 p.m. on Friday, as confirmed by the Orange County Sheriff's Office to Fox News.

Details surrounding the discovery remain limited, with authorities holding back further information at this time.

Investigation Escalates

Before the discovery, officials had expressed a grim outlook on Madeline's likely fate.

In a press briefing held earlier that day, they conveyed their belief that the teenager was no longer alive.

This belief came less than a week after Madeline was reported missing.

Sheriff John Mina of the Kissimmee Police Department relayed to Madeline's mother the "very devastating news" that, despite Madeline having not yet been found, they were confident she had died.

The case has since been elevated to a homicide investigation, marking a dark turn since Madeline's disappearance on Monday when she failed to show up for school.

Sheriff Mina detailed that Madeline did not attend school on the day she went missing, suggesting that a more sinister event had occurred.

"Instead, 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 stated, implicating Sterns, the boyfriend of Madeline's mother, Jenn Soto, as the primary suspect.

Sterns was apprehended on Wednesday on charges unrelated to Madeline's disappearance, specifically for capital sexual battery, as announced by Kissimmee Police Chief Betty Holland.

Sterns Under the Spotlight

The investigation has zeroed in on Sterns, who was last seen driving a silver 2010 Lincoln MKZ near Kissimmee on Monday.

Authorities believed that the vehicle may have suffered a flat tire.

Authorities have gathered video evidence of Sterns discarding items into a dumpster at an apartment complex in Kissimmee around 7:30 a.m. on the day Madeline went missing.

The girl's laptop and backpack were later recovered from the dumpster by detectives.

Mina stated that they possess evidence indicating Sterns returned to the apartment complex after 8 a.m. that morning, with Madeline visible in the vehicle. "We suspect she was already deceased by that time," Mina added.

Madeline's mother is not under suspicion in the case.

Chief Holland emphasized the ongoing efforts to recover Madeline and appealed to the community for assistance.

Meanwhile, the investigation, initially spearheaded by the Orange County Sheriff's Office, has been transferred to the Kissimmee Police Department.