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Murder Charges Finally Filed Against Prime Suspect in Death of 13-Year-Old Girl Discovered Near Disney World

press conference in florida
Credit: Facebook/Kissimmee Police Department

First-degree murder charges have been filed in Florida against the prime suspect in the death of a 13-year-old girl who went missing and was found dead just a half-hour from the Walt Disney World Resort in March.

Stephan Sterns Disney cast member

Credit: Madeline Soto/Orange County Jail/Orange County Sheriff’s Office

A Grand Jury Indictment

Early on Wednesday, per court records, a grand jury indicted 37-year-old Stephan Sterns in connection with the murder of 13-year-old Madeline Soto, who was reported missing on February 26. Sterns and Madeline’s mother, Jennifer, had dated for years prior to the girl’s disappearance.

According to Kissimmee Police Chief Betty Holland, Jennifer Soto has cooperated with detectives over the course of their investigation, and at this time, she is not a suspect in the child’s death.

madeline soto and jenn soto

Credit: Instagram/JennSoto

A press conference was held by Florida State Attorney Andrew Bain and Kissimmee Police Chief Betty Holland to share news about the indictment with the press.

It began at 4:00 p.m. local time, and during the press conference, representatives from local media were permitted to ask questions, but representatives from the State Attorney’s Office said that though Sterns has been indicted, an open criminal investigation is still underway.

As such, they were not at liberty to reveal the cause of Madeline’s death.

The Young Girl is Reported Missing in February

Madeline Soto was reported missing on February 26 when her mother, Jennifer Soto, said she went to pick up her daughter from school and didn’t find her.

madeline soto

Credit: Soto Family

Shortly thereafter, however, detectives on the case said they had reason to believe that the young girl was killed before it was time for school on that date, as they had video evidence that allegedly shows Sterns tossing Madeline’s school items, including her school-issued laptop and her backpack, into a dumpster at an apartment complex early that morning.

The video evidence has not been released.

Madeline Soto was found dead on March 1 in a wooded area off Old Hickory Tree Road in Osceola County in the city of St. Cloud, Florida.

Sterns Already Faces 60 Additional Charges

Sterns already faces 60 charges for sex crimes against the young girl. Investigators said they found evidence that Sterns had sexually abused Soto for years, beginning in 2019, when she was just eight years old.

In a release via X, investigators disclosed that they had discovered “disturbing images” on Sterns’ phone and that there was evidence that someone had attempted to remove the images from the phone before it was confiscated by law enforcement. According to the release, the images were “criminal and sexual in nature,” and detectives were able to determine that the crimes had taken place in the home where the young girl lived in Kissimmee, Florida.

stephan sterns madeline soto case kissimmee florida

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Office/Instagram/Jenn Soto/Canva

The charges against Sterns include possession of child sex abuse material and multiple counts of sexual battery of a child under 12. If convicted for Soto’s murder or for sexual battery of a child under age 12, Sterns could face the death penalty.

Sterns was scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday morning, but his public defender filed a motion with the court to delay the trial as the defense continued to prepare its case. Circuit Judge Keith Carsten approved the motion during a hearing.

Early on in the case, Sterns had reportedly stated he was working as a cast member at the Walt Disney World Resort, though Disney has denied that he was employed at the Central Florida theme park resort. His Facebook profile at the time of Soto’s disappearance listed his occupation as a cast member as well.

stephan sterns facebook profile

Credit: Screenshot/Facebook

A jury trial has been set for August 19, 2024, in the case, and prosecutors have yet to announce whether they will seek the death penalty against Sterns.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

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