By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Amber Alert in August captivated the state, a little girl gone from her home in central Minnesota.

Just hours after police started to look for 5-year-old Alayna Ertl the search ended in the worst way possible. Alayna’s body was found 80 miles from her Watkins home. A family friend was arrested for her murder.

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Alayna’s parents are giving thanks for the outpouring of support they’ve received since.

Nearly two months later a memorial continues to grow outside their Watkins home. The home to a family sorely missing its youngest member. Alayna was known for her friendliness and versatile personality.

“She was very loving,” her mom, Kayla Ertl said.

From her love of My Little Ponies to the time she spent hunting with her dad.

“She would come in our room every morning and give us a kiss good morning and make sure everybody else was OK,” she said.

Kayla and Matt Ertl hold memories and many tokens close. Their wrists are adorned with bracelets with Alayna’s name. They try not to concentrate on the evil that took Alayna away.

“Here’s an innocent little girl that did nothing wrong,” Kayla said.

Matt had worked with Zach Anderson at a utility line company for four years. Anderson lived in Coon Rapids. So, when they’d play softball in the summer, he’d sleep over. On that Saturday morning in August, the family woke up to find Anderson and Alayna missing, along with Matt’s pickup.

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Three hours after an Amber Alert was issued, K-9 officers found Anderson near his family’s cabin by Motley. Alayna’s body was found nearby. Investigators say she’d been sexually assaulted before Anderson killed her.

“People that you think that you know, and that you trust and become your friend and you have in your home and turn their back on you, and you don’t understand it,” Kayla said.

The Ertls admit they will struggle trusting new friends moving forward. Still, they are continuously reminded of the good that remains.

“The support has been overwhelming,” Kayla said.

Gifts and cards from so many touched by Alayna’s life. Even strangers from states away pledging to be more patient parents and not taking the time they have with their own kids for granted.

The Ertls are pushing on for their 8-year-old son, Carter, and for their small community that created a public space to heal.

“Look outside and there’d be four, five kids sitting around, sitting there reading books. It’s cool to see,” Matt said.

It’s where they find comfort in the words etched in wood they are certain Alayna would want them to hear.

“When it rains watch for rainbows when it’s dark watch for stars.”

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Alayna would have turned six on Halloween. To celebrate her birthday, the Ertls helped to organize a big community costume party in her honor. They want to give back to the people in Watkins for the support they’ve been given. Anderson’s next court date is set for December. He faces up to 40 years in prison.

Liz Collin