The abduction, sexual assault and strangling death of 5-year-old Alayna Ertl has shattered her small town Minnesota community – a shock made more severe by the subsequent arrest of a family friend accused of the crime.
At a candlelit vigil for Alayna on Tuesday night, one relative said, “It’s been hell. This is just senseless. There are no words.”
Here are five things you need to know about the case.
1. Alayna Was Abducted from Her Home
On Friday, the last night Alayna was seen alive, her father, Matthew Ertl, and suspect Zachary Anderson, 25, went to play softball before going out with friends, according to the court documents. The two stayed up talking until 4 a.m., when Matthew went to bed.
Alayna’s mother, Kayla, said she last saw her young daughter at about 2:30 a.m. in her bedroom, where she had carried her after she fell asleep on the couch, according to the documents. Kayla tucked Alayna in with the pink Princess Elsa blanket from the Disney movie Frozen that she sleeps with, according to the court documents.
The next morning, at 8:30 a.m., Alayna’s parents discovered her missing. They also realized that Anderson was also gone, along with Matthew’s work truck and his cell phone. The Ertls called police at 9:56 a.m., and authorities searched for Alayna before issuing an Amber Alert at 1:12 p.m.
2. The Suspect Was Turned in by His Father – and He Left an Apparent Suicide Note
Later Saturday afternoon, Anderson’s father called the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, saying he believed his son was the subject of the statewide Amber Alert, according to the court documents.
He said that his son had allegedly called him earlier that day asking for permission to go to the family’s cabin in Motley; Anderson’s father gave police permission to enter the cabin in their search.
Cass County Sheriff’s deputies allegedly located the truck stolen from Matthew Ertl in a ravine on Anderson’s family’s property, positioned in an apparent attempt to conceal its location, the court documents state.
Deputies who entered the cabin allegedly found a shotgun on the kitchen table with ammunition “spilled about” and “an apparent suicide note with apparent blood on the upper corner,” according to the court documents.
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K-9 officers allegedly found Anderson at about 4:23 p.m. about a quarter of a mile from a cabin on the property, standing “in knee-deep water in a swampy area” and with “fresh lacerations to his left wrist,” the court documents state. He was arrested without incident.
When asked for the location of “the girl,” he allegedly responded, “What girl?”
Shortly after, Anderson allegedly told police Alayna’s remains were hidden in the swamp under some debris. While looking for her, police first found her pink Elsa blanket. Shortly after, they found Alayna’s naked body, which was completely submerged in the water and hidden under brush and debris, the court documents state.
She was pronounced dead at the scene.
3. The Suspect Was a Family Friend
Anderson, a friend and co-worker of Alayna’s father, “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,” Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze told reporters Saturday night.
On Tuesday, Anderson was charged with second-degree intentional murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and two counts of kidnapping in Alayna’s death, according to a probable cause statement filed in Cass County Court.
4. No Discussion of Motive
Anderson has been held in the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd, Minnesota, since Saturday, and appeared in Cass County Court Tuesday to face his charges.
He has not entered a plea and is scheduled to return to court on Oct. 10. The judge set bail at $2 million with conditions.
Authorities have said nothing about motive.
“I just feel helpless,” kindergarten teacher Lori Rippentrop told the Pioneer Press at Tuesday’s vigil. “And I think everyone in the whole state is in shock. Small-town, central Minnesota. That can’t be happening.”
5. Alayna ‘Always Had a Smile on Her Face and a Hug for Everybody’
“Today we remember a little girl who was given to us as a gift,” Rev. Aaron Nett said at Tuesday’s vigil, according to the Press. “She had a love for others which was free and innocent.”
Alayna’s mother, Kayla, echoed that in an earlier interview with 5 Eyewitness News, saying, “She was always our little peanut. She was loved by many and she always had a smile on her face and a hug for everybody.”
And according to her obituary, Alayna “gave joy to our lives by always having a smile and kind words to say. She loved learning from her brother and always gave the best hugs.”
Alayna’s funeral will be held Friday. A GoFundMe has been set up for her family.