A 25-year-old man remains jailed Monday and accused of kidnapping and killing a friend's 5-year-old daughter, then leaving her body in a Cass County swamp.
Alayna Ertl, the sandy-haired 5-year-old girl who went missing from her Watkins home early Saturday morning, was found dead that afternoon.
A preliminary autopsy by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner said Alayna Ertl died of “homicidal violence.” The examiner offered no further details.
Zachary T. Anderson, of Monticello, is being held without bail in the Crow Wing County jail in Brainerd awaiting charges this week. As of late Monday afternoon, charges have yet to be filed.
Alayna’s body was discovered on property near Motley owned by Anderson’s family, about 80 miles north of Watkins. Anderson, who was arrested on the property, is expected to make his first court appearance in Cass County District Court on Monday or Tuesday.
Charges will also be filed in Cass County, the jurisdiction where Alayna’s body was found, said Bruce Gordon, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
In the Ertls’ neighborhood Sunday, sheriff’s deputies knocked on doors as part of their investigation into Alayna’s abduction and killing.
Alayna was last seen when she was put to bed at 2 a.m. Saturday. At 8 a.m. her mother, Kayla Ertl, discovered she was missing, according to an Amber Alert issued by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).
Anderson, who was staying over at the Ertls’ home that night, was also gone — along with a pickup truck belonging to the girl’s father, Matt Ertl, the alert read.
Eight hours later, about 4:20 p.m., authorities found the missing truck, but no one was inside it, or in a cabin on the property. Using canine helpers, authorities tracked Anderson to a wooded area a quarter mile from the cabin. Anderson, unarmed, did not flee or resist arrest. He provided information that led to Alayna’s body in a swampy area a few hundred yards from the cabin.
The brown-eyed girl was pronounced dead at the scene.
Matt Ertl’s cellphone was in the truck that Anderson had taken, and the phone pinged about 9 a.m. in nearby Todd County, authorities said.
“Our suspect in this case is a family friend … and was staying the night up in Watkins last night,” Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze said Saturday night. “He had previously been to that residence and spent a night here and there — so he’s not a stranger and not new to the residence, but was just there for the night.”
The two men are also co-workers, the sheriff said. They are employed by Vannguard, a multistate company that locates underground utility lines.
Authorities have revealed nothing about a possible motive. Anderson’s criminal history appears limited to minor traffic violations.
“We have no known predatory sexual offender information on him or anything like that,” Cruze said. “We are at a loss as to why this happened at this time.”
Alayna’s death was “obviously not the outcome that we wanted and when we did learn the information, the officers in the room, you could see … it weighed heavy on them," the sheriff said. "We tried everything we could today to find her safely and obviously that didn’t happen. And we know that it doesn’t compare to what the family’s going through right now, but we felt we did everything we possibly could.”
When the time comes, relatives of the Ertl family, friends and others from Watkins and surrounding communities will gather at the Ertl Funeral Home in downtown Watkins to mourn and remember Alayna.
Tom Ertl, the funeral home’s director and a second cousin to Matt Ertl, said he’ll be meeting with Alayna’s parents on Monday to make arrangements.
“It’s senseless,” were the only words Tom Ertl could offer to explain the loss of a life so young.
Aaron Nett, a new pastor at the Church of St. Anthony in Watkins, met twice with parishioners Matt and Kayla Ertl at their home since Alayna was found dead. “There’s a lot of people supporting them at their home — that was good to see. The community support for the family is very strong, and something like this certainly shakes the community,” Nett said.
“It’s a terrible situation that you hope you never have to deal with again,” he added.
A GoFundMe page set up by friends to help the Ertls had pledges of more than $14,000 by 10:45 p.m. Sunday.