The search for Alayna Ertl came to a tragic end Saturday evening when the 5-year-old girl was found dead in a rural area 90 minutes north of her home in Watkins, Minn.
Ertl was last seen when she was put to bed at 2 a.m. Saturday, and at 8 a.m. her mother discovered she was missing, according to an Amber Alert issued by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Zachary Todd Anderson, 25, who was staying over at Ertl’s home that night, was also gone — along with Ertl’s father’s pickup truck.
Nine hours later, authorities found Ertl’s body in rural Cass County by Wilderness Park outside Motley.
They arrested Anderson, who also was found in Cass County. Authorities found him alone in a secluded area around 4:20 p.m., according to police scanner traffic.
Anderson was a friend of the family and a co-worker of Ertl's father who had been to the house previously, Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze said Saturday evening. Anderson does not appear to have a criminal history beyond petty traffic violations.
Cruze said he was not sure why Anderson drove to the Motley area, about 80 miles north of Watkins. A tipster led authorities to the location.
“That’s part of our follow up right now, to figure out — why there?” Cruze said.
Brenda Henricks, who is on the board of the Wilderness Park Homeowner’s Association, said she began hearing helicopters hum overhead about 2:30 p.m. Dozens of police vehicles later swarmed and blocked off the southern portion of the park. Residents only knew that a child’s body had been found and someone was in custody, she said.
Ertl was dead when authorities found her, Cruze said.
The investigation is ongoing and detectives want to talk with anyone who saw Ertl, Anderson or the vehicle he was driving on Saturday.
Anderson is nearly 6 feet tall and has a short, scruffy beard. Authorities said he may have been wearing a black T-shirt labeled “Riverside MN Softball.” The stolen pickup authorities said he was driving was a white 2002 GMC Sierra with the Minnesota license plate 107 KMT.
Anyone with more information can call the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office at 320-693-5400.
Staff writer Natalie Daher contributed to this report.