Search for missing Florida 13-year-old ongoing as her mother's boyfriend is arrested

Search for missing Florida 13-year-old ongoing as her mother's boyfriend is arrested

A search was ongoing Thursday morning for a missing Florida 13-year-old girl who was last seen Monday, as her mother’s boyfriend, whom police call a “prime suspect,” has been arrested.

Madeline Soto was last seen around 8:30 a.m. Monday when her mother’s boyfriend dropped her off a few blocks away from Hunter’s Creek Middle School in Orlando, Orange County Sheriff John Mina said.

At 4:30 p.m., when Madeline’s mother went to pick her up at school, she learned her daughter never made it to school that day and had left her phone at home.

A search for the child was launched that night.

Madeline Soto (Orange County Sheriff's Office)
Madeline Soto (Orange County Sheriff's Office)

Stephan Sterns, 37, the boyfriend of Madeline’s mother and the last person to have seen her, was arrested Wednesday evening on charges of sexual battery and possession of child sexual abuse material, authorities announced.

Though he was not arrested in direct connection to Madeline’s disappearance, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office said “Sterns is considered the prime suspect at this time.”

During the investigation into Madeline’s whereabouts, Orange County sheriff’s detectives discovered “disturbing images” and videos that were “criminal, and sexual in nature” in a forensic examination of Sterns’ phone, the agency said.

They also discovered attempts to delete evidence. It was determined that those crimes were committed at the family’s home in Kissimmee and local police were notified and are leading the sexual battery case.

The department shared video showing Sterns silently being placed into a patrol car.

He was interviewed Wednesday night by Kissimmee police and OCSO detectives. He invoked his right to an attorney and was placed under arrest and transported to jail, the sheriff’s office said.

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

The search so far

The search for Madeline started Monday night.

A bloodhound smelled an item of Madeline’s and did an “extensive search,” but it didn’t lead to any results.

Detectives also accessed Madeline’s phone and found information on the phone “that indicated that she told people when she turned 13, which was on February 22, she actually wanted to go live in the woods,” Mina said.

The search so far has seen more than 100 deputies, detectives, intelligence analysts and bloodhounds search for her, including in a wooded area near the school.

Mina said Wednesday afternoon that Madeline’s family’s home in Kissimmee was being held by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office until police could secure search warrants, which were expected to be executed that evening.

Madeline, described as blond with blue eyes and 5 feet, 1 inch tall, was last seen wearing a green sweatshirt, black shorts and white Crocs.

Anyone with information on her whereabouts is urged to call 911 or the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.

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