WATKINS, MINN. – Alayna Ertl lived the carefree life of a 5-year-old in a small central Minnesota town. She swung a hula hoop around her small frame and rode a bicycle on city sidewalks outside her tan-sided house. She followed around a cousin a few years older, whom she adored.
“Laynie,” as family members called her, was a giggly and sometimes silly girl who loved to wear skirts and jewelry, a relative said, but also loved to play with her older brother on go-cart-type cars that their father built.
It’s unfathomable to people in this stoplight-free town of fewer than 1,000 residents that the girl could end up the victim of a homicide. Unfathomable that the accused perpetrator is a man her family considered a friend, a man whom many in town came to recognize as he spent Friday nights this summer playing softball on Alayna’s dad’s team and tipping back a few drinks in the local bars.
“Everybody just wants to know why,” Chris Cates said as she stood near the counter of Stein’s Thriftway Foods, the local grocery store where she works. “What possesses a person that’s a family friend? That’s the main question that’s hanging over the town.”
It’s a question reverberating throughout the state, too, as 25-year-old Zachary T. Anderson, of Monticello, sat in the Crow Wing County jail Monday on probable cause murder and kidnapping. Formal charges are expected Tuesday in Cass County, where Ertl’s body was found.
Alayna was last seen when she was put to bed at 2 a.m. Saturday. Her mother, Kayla Ertl, discovered she was missing at 8 a.m., authorities said. Anderson, who was staying over at the Ertls’ home, was also gone, along with a pickup truck belonging to Matt Ertl, Alayna’s father.
Authorities found the missing truck about eight hours later on property owned by Anderson’s family in Cass County. No one was inside the truck or in a cabin on the property near Motley, about 80 miles north of Watkins. Authorities used dogs to track Anderson to a wooded area a quarter mile from the cabin, located several miles down a gravel road from the entrance to Wilderness Park, a collection of small cabins and trailer homes nestled among tall trees.
Anderson, unarmed, did not flee or resist arrest and provided information that led authorities to Alayna’s body in a swampy area a few hundred yards from the cabin.
A preliminary autopsy by the Ramsey County medical examiner said Alayna died of “homicidal violence.”
As of Monday afternoon, the cabin and surrounding property were cordoned off with yellow tape that read “Sheriffs line do not cross.”
Searching for answers
Since Alayna’s body was found, a stream of friends and family members carrying balloons, stuffed animals and other gifts have appeared at the Ertls’ home. It sits a stone’s throw from the Catholic church where Alayna will be remembered at a funeral Friday morning. Neighbors halted approaching journalists, saying only that they and the family wanted privacy.
Inside Gordies bar on Central Avenue, where Anderson sometimes went with Matt Ertl and others after softball games, teacher Kendria Kramer shook her head Monday. In a small, tight-knit community, speculation often spreads quickly about what might have led up to something so tragic. But people in Watkins, she said, are stunned.
“I don’t think anyone has a clue,” she said.
Nicole Rohrbeck, whose husband is Matt Ertl’s cousin, said Alayna came to her house for haircuts and played with her children, one of whom was born just a few weeks before Alayna.
Somewhat bashful, Alayna would take a while to warm up to people, Rohrbeck said, but once she did she was bubbly.
“She’s always been a little shy, but always happy,” Rohrbeck said. “I’ve never seen her unhappy.”
About a year ago, Rohrbeck said, she cut Alayna’s sandy brown hair stylishly short and Alayna was “in heaven” about it. “It was her preschool haircut,” she said.
Rohrbeck’s husband also worked with Matt Ertl and Anderson at Vannguard, a multistate company that locates and marks underground utility lines.
The two cousins had known Anderson for a couple of years at least, Rohrbeck said. Anderson played on Matt Ertl’s softball team every Friday night throughout the summer, often crashing for the night at the Ertls’ house after having a few drinks at the local bars.
Rohrbeck, who sometimes tends bar at Gordies, said Anderson was outgoing and talkative, often telling her anecdotes about her husband at work.
Anderson “always had a story,” she said.
She never saw a reason to question his intentions.
“Where’s the line when you know when to trust somebody or not?” she asked. “It’s too hard to fathom what in the world could have happened.”
It’s the second tragedy to hit the town, located about an hour’s drive northwest of the Twin Cities, in two months.
Carpenters were still pounding nails and sawing wood Monday while repairing houses hit by a tornado that tore through Watkins on July 11, damaging about 30 homes, a dozen of them severely.
The Rev. Aaron Nett, a new pastor at the tall-steepled Church of St. Anthony, said the Watkins community reacted very quickly to help residents recover from the twister.
A table inside city hall is still filled with donated soaps, foodstuffs and other goods for tornado victims.
Nett said he’s seen relatives and friends support the Ertls now, too. The congregation of about 250 families is praying for peace and healing, he said.
“Certainly, something as tragic as this shakes everybody,” Nett said. “A parent losing a child is extremely painful; in this way just makes it more so.”
Funeral home director Tom Ertl, a third cousin to Alayna, said the girl’s family is doing the best they can.
Preparing for a child’s funeral is more difficult for everyone, he said.
“This is senseless,” he said. “Accidents happen, but this makes no sense.”
With so many unanswered questions about how and why Alayna was killed, the town is hoping that Anderson continues to cooperate with authorities and explains what happened so the community can try to make sense of it all.
“A freak of nature, we can handle,” Rohrbeck said. “This makes you sick.”
Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this report.