Outrage as sheriff accidentally posts Madeline Soto crime scene photo online

A Florida sheriff has been forced to apologise after sharing a photo of what appeared to be the body of murdered 13-year-old girl Madeline Soto online.

The photo was posted on Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez’s personal Instagram page within 24 hours of the teenager’s body being found on Friday 1 March.

Sheriff Lopez has since said the post was an “accident” and that he meant to actually upload a post about a visit with senior citizens.

The image appeared to feature clothing which matched the outfit Madeline was last seen wearing when she vanished on 26 February in Kissimmee.

The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Independent on Tuesday morning about the incident, but a spokesperson told local media that the photo had been immediately removed when the error was spotted.

“We deeply apologise for any confusion or disturbance this may have caused,” they said. “As with any investigation, the information obtained is confidential and any mistaken disclosures will be immediately rectified.”

The incident comes after another official from the OCSO – Executive Director Nirva Rodríguez – shared a selfie with suspect Stephan Sterns in the background, as he was booked into the county jail on charges of sexually battering a child and possessing child pornography.

Mr Sterns, the victim’s mother’s boyfriend, was arrested on 28 February after officers found “criminal” photos and video on his phone. One day later, Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies concluded the teen was dead.

Mr Sterns, 37, had told officers that he had dropped Madeline off close to her school on the Monday morning, but that she never showed up for class.

Orange County Sheriff John Mina later said that he believed Madeline was already dead that morning, after finding security camera footage showing what they believed was Mr Stern’s driving his car with her body inside.

Madeline’s body was then discovered on Friday afternoon in rural Osceola County, where the first photo was reportedly taken.

Missing poster for Madeline Soto (Orlando Sentinel)
Missing poster for Madeline Soto (Orlando Sentinel)

A spokesperson for State Attorney Andrew Bain told The Independent that he was “deeply disturbed” by the photos, which he said were in “poor taste”.

“We have requested the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate this matter. However, we would be unable to comment on any active investigation,” spokesperson Jason Gunn said.

“Our main focus is making sure we get justice for 13-year-old Madeline Soto.”

There are now questions around how these photos might affect a criminal trial for Mr Sterns, as Florida law prohibits the release of photos depicting the killing of a minor, including media showing their body, except to a parent.

If an official is found to have wilfully shared the photo, they could face up to five years in prison.

The man running to replace Sheriff Lopez in the 2024 election, Russ Gibson, said he was “shocked and appalled” over the posts.

“This is 100% unacceptable and 100% shameful and disrespectful to Madeline, her family and friends!!” Mr Gibson said in a post on Facebook, with his supporters calling for a thorough investigation.

Kissimmee Police Department, which is leading the murder investigation, told The Independent that there were no new developments as of Tuesday morning in the case. Mr Sterns is being held without bond.