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Florida Announces Landmark Decision on Self-Proclaimed Disney “Cast Member” Charged with Murder

A man with a beard and a large question mark over his face is partially visible on the left side of the image. The background features a digitally created castle with tall spires, resembling a fairytale structure. In small text, the name Madeline Soto appears near the death penalty protest banners hanging from one of the towers.
Credit: Disney Dining

The State of Florida has made a landmark announcement on Monday as detectives continue their investigation into the murder of 13-year-old Madeline Soto, who was first reported missing in February.

Stephan Sterns Disney cast member

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

A Missing Person Case That Drew Nationwide Attention

Soto was reported missing on February 26, 2024. She was last seen by her mother’s boyfriend, Stephan Michael Sterns, who claimed to have dropped her off near her school–Hunter’s Creek Middle School–that morning. The child’s mother, Jennifer Soto, had seen her daughter getting ready for school earlier that morning.

Sterns later stated in a police interview that Madeline requested to be dropped off approximately one-half block from the school. But surveillance footage and subsequent investigations revealed inconsistencies in his story, as it showed Sterns discarding the girl’s belongings, including her school-issued laptop and her backpack, in a dumpster.

stephan sterns madeline soto case kissimmee florida

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

Sterns Is Arrested and Charged With 60 Counts of Sexual Crimes

Stephan Sterns had been arrested and charged with 60 counts of sexual crimes. Investigators would later reveal that Sterns had attempted to swipe his phone clean of any images, but they were recovered. Detectives allege that Sterns began sexually abusing the young girl when she was just eight years old, and her mother told police that it wasn’t uncommon for Sterns and her daughter to sleep together, even when the mother was not at home.

On March 1, the body of Madeline Soto was discovered in a wooded area in Osceola County, approximately 30 minutes away from the Walt Disney World Resort, where Sterns claimed he worked as a cast member–along Old Hickory Tree Road in St. Cloud, Florida.

stephan sterns facebook profile

Credit: Screenshot/Facebook

Her remains were found after a detailed investigation led to the area, based on the inconsistencies in Sterns’ statements and additional evidence gathered by investigators. The Kissimmee Police Department took over the case, continuing the investigation.

At the time, Sterns was still not charged in the teen’s death.

Holes in His Story and Suspicious Behavior

It would soon be revealed that Stern’s account of the night before Madeline’s disappearance to the morning of the day she was reported missing had significant gaps in it.

Sterns’ behavior, including the suspicious attempt at a factory reset of his phone, spurred investigators’ suspicions about his role in the crime, and Sterns was finally charged with the murder of Madeline Soto on April 24, 2024, nearly two months after her disappearance.

A man with a gray and black beard, wearing a dark shirt, is being escorted by a person in uniform. The background is a plain wall with a door. The person in uniform has a sheriff's star-shaped badge on their sleeve.

Credit: Orange County Sheriff’s Office

The investigation is ongoing as authorities work to piece together the details and events surrounding the young girl’s murder–including a motive for the killing, and the murder trial is currently scheduled to begin on August 19.

A Landmark Announcement From the State of Florida

The Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office announced on Monday that it plans to seek the death penalty in the first-degree murder case against Stephan Sterns in the death of Madeline Soto, meaning that Sterns and famed serial killer Ted Bundy will have something in common.

Capital Punishment in the State of Florida

Since 1977, following the end of a moratorium on the practice, which was put into place by a Supreme Court ruling in 1972, the United States has carried out 1,582 executions, including 16 at the federal level. Convicted felon Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was among those.

The case of Furman vs. Georgia, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1972, held that capital punishment was unconstitutional. As such, death penalty laws nationwide were struck down. Following the Furman decision, however, the Florida Legislature revised the death penalty statutes, in case the Court reinstated capital punishment at a later date.

The image shows the front facade of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., with its iconic neoclassical architecture, large columns, and a pediment above. The sky is clear and blue, creating a striking backdrop for the white marble structure.

Credit: Disney Dining

That’s exactly what happened in 1976, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Gregg vs. Georgia and reinstated capital punishment, which resumed in Florida in 1979 when John Spenkelink became the first Death Row inmate to be executed under the new statutes.

Since then, Florida has executed over 100 inmates, perhaps the most notable of them being Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer, who was put to death nearly 35 years ago in 1989, drawing extensive media attention.

A black and white mugshot of a man with short, dark hair. He wears a collared shirt and holds a sign with text "FLA DOC A069 063" and "FEB 13 1980." The background is plain and light-colored.

Ted Bundy’s mugshot in 1980/Credit: Good Morning America

In recent years, legal challenges and shifts in public opinion related to the morality and cost of executions, as well as the potential for wrongful convictions, have influenced decisions about the death penalty.

As of 2024, Florida remains one of the states with the highest number of death row inmates. Currently, more than 300 inmates await execution in the state. Since 1977, Florida has executed 105 inmates, making it the state with the fourth-highest number of executions behind Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

Governor Ron DeSantis has supported the continued use of the death penalty, asserting its role as a deterrent and a form of justice for heinous crimes, reflecting the ongoing contentious nature of this issue in Florida.

“Several Aggravating Factors” Noted By the State

But even in Florida, prosecutors have to give reasons for the decision to seek the death penalty. On Monday, the State Attorney’s Office explained that the decision to seek the death penalty against Stephan Sterns was based on “several aggravating factors the State intends to prove.” They include the following:

  • The capital felony was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, aggravated child abuse.
  • The victim was particularly vulnerable because the defendant stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim.
  • The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.
  • The defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony or a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person.
A dark prison cell with light rays shining through barred windows onto a purple silhouette of the state of Florida. The contrast between the dark surroundings and the bright light highlights the silhouette prominently.

Credit: Disney Dining

In March, Sterns was charged with 60 counts related to sex crimes, and should he be convicted of those crimes, they will serve as the aforementioned previous convictions of a capital felony. Sterns is slated to stand trial for those crimes on July 16, though he may not be in attendance during the trial.

Sterns was absent for his arraignment in late April, and State Attorney Andrew Bain says he won’t necessarily appear for any of his court dates–up to and including his trial:

So you have to have a discussion, when you sit on the bench as a judge, you have a long discussion with that person about the all the dangers and the pitfalls and what that really means for them, that you know what rights are going to be given up by doing that. And so we make sure that, you know, that’s a longer conversation that has to happen when we get to that point.”

press conference in florida

State Attorney Andrew Bain/Credit: Facebook/Kissimmee Police Department

Related: Eyes on a Killer: Police Release Bodycam Footage in Madeline Soto Murder Case

As of this publication, investigators have still not released a motive in the case. As this continues to be a developing story, more information will be shared as it becomes available.

About Rebekah Tyndall Burkett

Rebekah grew up in Forney, Texas and lives just outside of Dallas. She’s been a Disney superfan since childhood, experiencing the magic at Walt Disney World for the first time at the age of 11. Journeys to Neverland are at least a yearly occurrence for her, her husband and her four children (the Fab Four). When they go to the parks, they stay in Florida for three weeks at a time. Rebekah loves exploring the history of the parks, the genius behind the Magic in the person of Walt Disney, and she is intrigued by all things Disney World and Disney Imagineering. When in the parks, Rebekah and her husband Scott make the most of their time by enjoying every minute with their Fab Four, by delving deeper into Walt’s vision for the parks and into the history behind the Walt Disney World Resort, and by photographing the many different types of architecture at Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and on the World Showcase at EPCOT. When she’s not in the parks, Rebekah is excitedly setting travel dates and planning her family’s next adventure to their happy place deep within the Sunshine State. On breaks from planning her next trip, Rebekah is a writer, journalist and children’s author, penning children’s books about kids with special needs that she affectionately calls “believement-achievement” stories. Her hobbies include creative writing, paper crafting and interviewing Imagineers. She is also an advocate for Autism Awareness and for children with developmental disabilities of all kinds.

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