October 04, 2016 03:40 PM

As Alayna Ertl‘s Minnesota community gathered at a Tuesday vigil to remember the 5-year-old girl found dead Saturday after what police have called a shattering kidnapping and homicide, many spoke of love – and loss.

“When something like this happens, it leaves a hole,” kindergarten teacher Dawn Kuechle told the Pioneer Press. Kuechle would have taught Alayna this coming school year.

“Horrific. Very difficult,” she said. “Just not knowing, not understanding why, and trying to understand just where we go from here.”

The family of Alayna Ertl – her parents Matt and Kayla with older brother, Carter, between them – lit their candles first during the prayer vigil for Alayna on Tuesday night at a church in Watkins, Minnesota.
Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/Zuma

Tom Ertl, a local funeral director and distant cousin of Alayna’s family, expressed similar sentiments, according to the Press: “It’s been hell. This is just senseless. There are no words.”

The vigil drew hundreds of people, who gathered at a church across from Alayna’s home in Watkins, Minnesota. They held candles, read Bible verses and sang songs.

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They remembered Alayna, who “gave joy to our lives by always having a smile and kind words to say,” according to her obituary. “She loved learning from her brother and always gave the best hugs.”

“Today we remember a little girl who was given to us as a gift,” Rev. Aaron Nett said, 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.”

Alayna Jeanne Ertl
Meeker County Sheriff's Office

No Known Motive

Police have so far declined to release a motive, but a suspect was arrested soon after Alayna’s body was found: 25-year-old Zachary Anderson, described as a family friend, has been accused of abducting and murdering Alayna. Police said he allegedly sexually assaulted her before strangling her.

Anderson allegedly left a suicide note with what appeared to be blood on the upper corner before he was arrested Saturday, police said.

That violence – and the mystery surrounding it – was much on the minds of the vigil’s attendees Tuesday.

“It’s like everybody’s in shock and nobody knows how to feel. Feel anger or feel sadness or – it’s just hard to put it into words how any of us feel,” Angie Adams, Alayna’s godmother and aunt, told KARE 11.

“We just want answers. We just want to know why,” attendee Heather Johanneck told the station.

As the vigil began, the mourners released hundreds of balloons into the air, according to the paper. They were pink and purple – Alayna’s favorite colors. A song played as well, from one of Alayna’s favorite movies: Frozen‘s “Let It Go.”

Her funeral will be held Friday.

“I just feel helpless,” kindergarten teacher Lori Rippentrop told the Press. “And I think everyone in the whole state is in shock. Small-town, central Minnesota. That can’t be happening.”

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