One Week After Young Teen’s Body is Found & Still No Concrete Links Between Disney World and the Suspect in the Case

madeline soto
Credit: Instagram/Jenn Soto/Orange County Sheriff's Office/Canva

It’s been more than a week since the body of a missing 13-year-old girl was discovered in Osceola County, Florida, approximately a half-hour from the Walt Disney World Resort, and investigators are still attempting to find the answers to an endless stream of questions surrounding the details of the case.

But despite the dedicated work of detectives assigned to the case, as well as the prime suspect’s claims on social media, there’s still no definitive proof that the alleged killer was, in fact, a cast member at the Central Florida Disney parks.

missing teen madeline soto

Credit: Family of Madeline Soto

The Disappearance

Monday morning, February 26, 2024, might have seemed normal in some aspects to 13-year-old Madeline Soto. It wasn’t uncommon for Stephan Sterns, the boyfriend of her mother, Jenn Soto, to take the young girl to school at Hunter’s Creek Middle School in the mornings.

hunter's creek

Credit: Facebook/Hunter’s Creek Middle School

But February 26 was very different for the young girl, who was reported missing at 8:00 p.m. that evening after her mother drove to the school to pick her up around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, only to be told her daughter had not attended school that day.

Her mother’s fears were surely compounded by the fact that Soto had left her phone at home that day, per Click Orlando.

The next day, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office issued an official release via X regarding the young girl’s disappearance, pleading with the public for any information they might have related to the teen’s whereabouts.

Searches Begin & Deputies Access the Teen’s Phone

Two days after her disappearance, on February 28, a massive search was initiated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Later that day, Sheriff John Mina revealed that deputies had accessed information from the young girl’s cell phone, which led them to believe Soto had planned to “live in the woods” once she turned 13. Her birthday was February 22.

He further shared that deputies had searched the area where she was last seen, as well as areas about which they’d received anonymous tips. Ultimately, however, their searches had remained fruitless to that point.

But later that day, Orange County Sheriff’s representatives announced that the boyfriend of Soto’s mother had been arrested as the only suspect in her disappearance.

Stephan Sterns arrest

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Office

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

Sterns Held Without Bond on Other Charges

As such, Sterns was arrested and held without bond. He faces charges of sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse materials.

“Stephan Sterns had an opportunity tonight to come clean with detectives and help lead them to information about Maddie’s disappearance,” Sheriff Mina said. “Her loved ones deserve answers, and OCSO and the Kissimmee Police will not stop until we find Maddie.”

madeline soto

Credit: Soto Family

Three days after her disappearance, on February 29, the affidavit related to Sterns’ arrest was made public. According to the document, Sterns told detectives that he dropped off Madeline Soto in front of a church childcare location on the same street where her school was located–Peace United Methodist Preschool–at 8:40 a.m. That’s despite the fact that her middle school was further down the street, and classes began at 9:30 a.m.

Orange County Sheriff’s Office “Confident” the Child Is Deceased

Four days after Madeline Soto disappeared, on March 1, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office held a news conference, during which Sheriff Mina said that his team of investigators was “confident” that the young girl was already deceased–and that she had been killed at the family home before Sterns allegedly moved her body.

As of the time of the conference, detectives had still not found her remains.

Sheriff Mina told reporters that detectives had video evidence that showed Sterns discarding items into a dumpster at a Kissimmee apartment complex before 8:00 a.m. on the morning of February 26, which was the day the young girl went missing. The discarded items were later found to be Madeline Soto’s school-issued laptop and her backpack.

Detectives Discover the Body of the 13-Year-Old Girl

It was clear that Sterns had not dropped Soto off near her school. Instead, according to Sheriff Mina, Stephan Sterns was seen driving a vehicle with the young girl’s body inside it.

silver vehicle in madeline soto disapperance case

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Office

“We have evidence that shows Stephan Sterns returning to the complex,” Sheriff Mina explained, “and Madeline was visible in that vehicle. We believe she was already dead at that time.”

Later that afternoon, Orange County deputies found the young girl’s body in a wooded area just off Old Hickory Tree Road in Osceola County, about 32 miles from the Walt Disney World Resort. That evening, a community vigil was held near her middle school in remembrance of the young girl.

map of disney world to hickory tree road

Credit: Google Maps

The Suspect’s Initial Court Appearance

On Saturday, March 2, Sterns waived his first appearance in Osceola County Court. Instead, he opted to be represented solely by his attorney. The presiding judge ordered Sterns to be held without bond.

Shortly thereafter, a photo from the crime scene was “accidentally” shared online.

“Earlier today, a post was made on social media about a community event for seniors,” said an unnamed Osceola County spokesperson via email. “In the post, an investigative photo was accidentally included. The photo was immediately removed. We deeply apologize for any confusion or disturbance this may have caused. As with any investigation, the information obtained is confidential, and any mistaken disclosures will be immediately rectified.”

Later, on March 6, the Kissimmee Police Department announced that the investigation into Soto’s death was continuing. Released court documents show that Stephan Sterns, the prime suspect in Soto’s disappearance and death, is accused of having sexually abused the girl for years. According to an arrest warrant affidavit, allegations of the abuse began in 2022.

madeline soto stephan sterns suspect

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Office

“Upon reviewing the contents of Stephan [Sterns’] phone, several images and videos were located, which depicted the missing juvenile,” the affidavit reads in part.

Kissimmee Police also released a statement, saying:

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 investigation.

At this time, there have been no additional updates shared about the case, and despite the fact that the suspect, Stephan Sterns, claims to have been working as a cast member at the Walt Disney World Resort, Disney has struck down those claims.

stephan sterns facebook profile

Credit: Screenshot/Facebook

Sterns’ Facebook profile states that he was a cast member at Disney World, but as of the time of this publication, there has been no evidence to verify that his claims are true, and it’s worth restating that Disney World has denied Sterns’s claims entirely.

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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