MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A 25-year-old Minnesota man has been charged with the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old Watkins girl.
Zachary Anderson, of Coon Rapids, was charged with one count of second-degree murder, one count of criminal sexual conduct with a person under the age of 13, one count of kidnapping to facilitate felony, one count of kidnapping to commit great bodily harm and one count of theft in the kidnapping and death of Alayna Ertl.
According to the criminal complaint, Ertl’s father and Anderson played softball together on the evening of Aug. 19. The two returned to the Ertl’s residence after 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning and Anderson spent the night.
On the morning of Aug. 20, an AMBER Alert went out after Ertl was reported missing from her home by her parents. Her parents told authorities they put her to bed around 2 a.m. and discovered her missing around 8:30 a.m.
According to the criminal complaint, the Ertls also noticed their 2002 GMC Sierra missing, along with Anderson.
The Meeker County Sheriff’s Office began a search for the individuals and the vehicle.
The report states that Anderson was spotted around 8:30 a.m. at a convenience store near Browerville. He appeared to be alone.
Just before 2 p.m., the Cass County Sheriff’s Office dispatch was contacted by a person claiming to be Anderson’s father. He told authorities that he believed his son was the subject of the AMBER Alert.
According to the criminal complaint, the caller told dispatch that Anderson had asked if he could use the family’s cabin, located in Motely some 80 miles from Watkins.
The caller gave police permission to search the residence. The criminal complaint states two pairs of officers responded to the cabin, located on the 4900 block or Iroquois Loop Trail Southwest.
The first pair spotted the GMC truck parked just past the residence. It had been pulled into a ravine in apparent attempt to hide its location.
After spotting the car, the officers entered the residence where they found a 20-gauge shot gun and 20-gauge rounds spilled on the kitchen table. They also found an apparent suicide note.
According to the complaint, the other pair of Cass County officers, including a K-9 officer, followed footsteps on a path outside that led into the woods.
They searched the area and located Anderson standing knee-deep in a swamp just before 4:30 p.m. He had appeared to have slit his wrists.
The complaint states that Anderson took the deputies to the edge of the swamp, where they found Ertl’s unclothed body submerged in the water.
Police believe she was strangled and hit in the head. The criminal complaint also states Anderson sexually assaulted the girl.
Steve Pearson trained the K-9 officer who helped lead authorities to the swampy area, Yankee, who is the partner of Cass County Deputy Bill Conner.
“Their ability to smell and follow that odor is absolutely remarkable,” Pearson said.
He says because authorities did not have an item of clothing for Yankee to go off, he believes the German Shepard tracked Anderson’s “fear scent.”
“Those officers, when they got to the cabin had no idea where to start, they tried using a helicopter and people down in the woods and what not,” Pearson said. “I have no doubt he would have gotten away [without Yankee’s help].”
Bail has been set for $2 million without conditions and $1 million with conditions. Anderson’s next court appearance is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 10.
Funeral services for Alayna Ertl are set 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Watkins. There will be a visitation from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and on Friday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., both at the Ertl Funeral Home in Watkins. There will also be parish prayers at 8 p.m. Thursday at the funeral home.
A vigil is planned for the public Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. in the St. Anthony Catholic Church parking lot at 170 Meeker Avenue South in Watkins.
Her family has set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for funeral expenses.