Madeline Soto: What we know about 13-year-old’s disappearance in Florida

The teenager’s body was found on 1 March, following her disappearance in Kissimmee, Florida. Her mother’s boyfriend is the main suspect and is in custody, reports Dan Gooding

Tuesday 12 March 2024 19:14 GMT
Madeline Soto, 13, disappeared on 26 February in Kissimmee, Florida. Her mother’s boyfriend Stephan Sterns (right) is the lead suspect
Madeline Soto, 13, disappeared on 26 February in Kissimmee, Florida. Her mother’s boyfriend Stephan Sterns (right) is the lead suspect (Orange County Sheriff’s Office)
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Madeline Soto was reported missing in Florida on Monday 26 February, after the 13-year-old never showed up for class.

After a four-day search, the local sheriff’s office said it was “confident” that she was dead. The grim discovery of her body was made several hours later.

Her mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Sterns, is the lead suspect and is in police custody on sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse material charges.

So far, no charges have been filed in relation to Madeline’s death.

Here is everything we know about the Madeline Soto case so far.

When did Madeline Soto go missing?

Madeline Soto, 13, was reported missing on Monday 26 February at around 8.30am.

Orange County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) said that she was last seen off Village Park Drive in Kissimmee, near Orlando, heading to school.

Madeline was described as white, 5’1” tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She was wearing a green sweatshirt, black shorts and white Crocs.

Her mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Sterns, claimed that he had dropped her off close to Hunter’s Creek Middle School but not outside.

However, the girl never showed up for class. Her mother only discovered that Madeline was missing when she went to pick her up from school later that day.

More than 50 law enforcement officers spent the days following Madeline’s disappearance searching for her in nearby woodland. Officers had found messages on her phone that she said she wanted to live in the woods when she turned 13.

Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputies search woods in Kissimmee for missing teenager Madeline Soto (Orange County Sheriff’s Office/X)

Madeline Soto’s body discovered

On Friday 1 March, OCSO said they believed that Madeline was never dropped off near school on Monday morning and that she was already dead at that time.

Sheriff John Mina said he had met with Madeline’s mother the night before to tell her he was “confident” that her daughter was dead and that his deputies were now looking for her body.

The sheriff explained that OCSO has video evidence that shows Mr Sterns throwing items into a dumpster behind their apartment building at around 7.35am. Those items included the teen’s backpack and her school-issued laptop.

”At 8.19am, we have evidence that shows Stephan Sterns returning to the complex and Madeline was visible in that vehicle. We believe she was already dead at that time,” the sheriff said.

Later that Friday, the sheriff’s office confirmed that her body had been found in a wooded area in Osceola County.

Madeline Soto: Sheriff shares update on missing girl

“At about 4:30pm today, off of Hickory Tree Road, Osceola County Sheriff’s Office search teams located the body of Madeline Soto in a wooded area. Madeline’s family has been notified,” the office said in a statement.

“We have no additional information to release at this time. Kissimmee PD is the lead agency in this homicide investigation. That work continues.”

Mother’s boyfriend is main suspect

On Wednesday 28 February, two days after Madeline disappeared, OCSO announced that it had arrested Mr Sterns, following the discovery of “disturbing images” on his phone, which he had tried to delete. These photos and videos were “criminal and sexual in nature”, the office said.

The office shared a video of the suspect in handcuffs.

At the briefing on 1 March, Sheriff Mina said that investigators believe Mr Sterns dumped Madeline’s belongings before moving her body, rather than taking her to school as he had originally claimed.

Kissimmee Police Department has Mr Sterns in custody. He is being held on sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse material charges.

On Monday 4 March, another arrest warrant was issued for Mr Sterns, alleging he had been abusing Madeline since at least 2022, when she was 11 years old.

Investigators said they had further examined Mr Sterns’ phone and found that some of the sexually explicit material was dated from August 2022.

The media was found despite the suspect saying he had accidentally performed a factory reset on his phone the day Madeline disappeared.

Kissimmee PD has also shared photos of Mr Stern’s car, which he was seen driving between 1pm and 2.30pm on 26 February in the area of State Road 192 and Old Hickory Tree Road. It is believed he had a flat tyre at the time.

The department said on Wednesday 6 March that it was still working on the murder investigation, but added that further details could not yet be released.

“Our detectives and forensic unit are working tirelessly to uncover the truth behind this heartbreaking incident,” the department said on X. “We understand the desire for updates, and we assure you that every effort is being made to get justice for Madeline.”

Madeline’s mother is not considered a suspect at this time.

Tributes paid to Madeline

In a statement released on Friday afternoon, Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Dr Maria Vazquez paid tribute to their “precious student”.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to Maddie’s family and her school community,” Dr Vazquez said. “To lose a child so suddenly and tragically is extremely difficult, especially for family and friends.

“Counsellors continue to be available for any student or staff member dealing with the news. I ask that you keep the entire Hunter’s Creek Middle School community in your prayers as they grieve the loss of one of their own.”

Madeline Soto was last seen on Monday 26 February 2024 (Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Osceola County Sheriff shared photo of crime scene online

Less than 24 hours after Madeline’s body was discovered in Osceola County, the local sheriff, Marcos Lopez, reportedly shared a photo of the crime scene on his Instagram page.

The post, which was quickly taken down, was an “accident” according to the sheriff’s office.

The image reportedly included clothing that matched items worn by the 13-year-old the day she went missing.

Sheriff Lopez’s opponent in the 2024 election, Russ Gibson, said he was “shocked and appalled” at the post, as well as another by executive director Nirva Rodríguez in which she posed for a selfie with Mr Sterns in the background as he was booked into Osceola County Jail.

Osceola County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement to local media that it apologised “for any confusion or disturbance” the posts may have caused.

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