Madeline Soto, missing 13-year-old Florida girl, found dead; mother’s boyfriend suspected of moving her body

The body of missing Florida girl Madeline Soto was found in a wooded area Friday afternoon, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said, hours after the department said they believed the 13-year-old was dead.

Her mother’s boyfriend is suspected of moving her body and the case is a homicide investigation, Sheriff John Mina said at a news conference earlier in the day.

Madeline’s body was found around 4:30 p.m. by Osceola County Sheriff’s Office search teams in a wooded area off Hickory Tree Road, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said in an update.

“Madeline’s family has been notified. We have no additional information to release at this time. Kissimmee PD is the lead agency in this homicide investigation. That work continues,” the sheriff’s office said.

The sheriff’s office previously said Madeline 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, Mina said in a Friday press conference

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 Kissimmee Police Department will take over the case now that it has transitioned into a homicide investigation.

Kissimmee Police Chief Betty Holland had asked the public to come forward with tips as the search for the child was ongoing.

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 and Nulty roads. It is believed he had a flat tire and might have been seen changing the tire in this area. 

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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