MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A 25-year-old man who was considered a family friend was charged Tuesday with kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing a 5-year-old girl from central Minnesota — leaving her body submerged in a swamp and covered with debris.
Authorities say Zachary Todd Anderson abducted Alayna Ertl early Saturday from her home in Watkins, about 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Alayna’s body was found later that day.
A preliminary autopsy found Alayna was strangled. There was also evidence of blunt force trauma to her head and sexual assault.
Anderson, of Coon Rapids, was charged in a Minnesota courtroom with multiple counts including murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and theft of a motor vehicle.
His bail was set at $2 million, or $1 million with conditions. The Star Tribune reported that he requested a public defender. A woman who answered the phone at the public defender’s office said she had no information to release.
According to the criminal complaint, Anderson was a friend of Alayna’s father. The two men played softball Friday night and went out with friends before heading to the Ertl home.
The girl’s mother told authorities she last saw Alayna at 2:30 a.m., when she carried her daughter to her room after she fell asleep on the couch.
The family discovered Alayna was missing at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday. Anderson was also gone, along with the family’s truck. Authorities were called at about 10 a.m., and a statewide Amber Alert was issued.
Anderson’s father called authorities about four hours later, saying he believed his son was the suspect, and that Anderson had called earlier that day and asked to use the family’s cabin near Motley, about 80 miles to the north.
Authorities went to the cabin and found the truck. No one was inside the cabin, but a 20-gauge shotgun was on the kitchen table with ammunition, along with an apparent suicide note that seemed to have blood on it.
Officers sent K-9 units into the woods and found Anderson in knee-deep water in a swampy area, with cuts on his left wrist.
When asked about the girl, he initially responded, “What girl?”
Anderson eventually told investigators that Alayna was hidden in the swamp under debris, according to the complaint. Officers searched the area and found her naked body submerged in the water and hidden under brush and other debris.
Alayna’s online obituary says she had finished preschool at Eden Valley-Watkins Elementary School. It also says she gave joy to others by always smiling.
“She was an animal lover, a princess, a singer, a great friend to everyone she met, and was our peanut,” the obituary said. “She loved learning from her brother, and always gave the best hugs.”
Nearly 1,000 people turned out Tuesday night for a vigil in her honor at a church near the family’s home, according to local media.
Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/amyforliti . More of her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/amy-forliti