Man Charged in Murder of Friend's 5-Year-Old Daughter Allegedly Sexually Assaulted Her and Left Suicide Note
The 25-year-old suspect in the murder of his family friend’s 5-year-old daughter allegedly sexually assaulted the girl before strangling her to death, authorities confirm to PEOPLE.
On Tuesday, Zachary Todd Anderson of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, was charged with second-degree intentional murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and two counts of kidnapping in the death of Alayna Jeanne Ertl, according to a probable cause statement filed in Cass County Court on Tuesday.
Alayna was found in a swamp, with her beloved pink Princess Elsa blanket nearby, the statement says, which adds that an autopsy indicates her cause of death was strangulation with evidence of blunt force trauma to the head.
“She was always our little peanut,” Alayna’s mother, Kayla Ertl, told 5 Eyewitness News. “She was loved by many and she always had a smile on her face and a hug for everybody.”
Anderson allegedly left a suicide note with what appeared to be blood on the upper corner before he was arrested Saturday, according to the statement.
He has been held in the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd, Minnesota since Saturday, and appeared in Cass County court Tuesday to face the charges.
He has not entered a plea and is scheduled to return to court on October 10. The judge set bail at $2 million with conditions.
Authorities have said nothing about motive.
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Details of Fateful Night
On Friday, the last night Alayna was seen alive, her father, Matthew Ertl, and Anderson 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.
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.
Turned in by His Father
More than 45 minutes later, 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 stolen truck 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.
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 Disney 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.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for Alayna’s family.
A vigil for Alayna will be held Tuesday night at St. Anthony Church in Watkins. Her funeral will be held Friday morning at St. Anthony Church.