Man charged with sexually assaulting, murdering 5-year-old

Published 10:21 am Wednesday, August 24, 2016

By Paul Walsh and Emma Nelson

Minneapolis Star Tribune

WALKER — A friend of Alayna Ertl’s family was charged Tuesday with abducting the 5-year-old from her home in Watkins, Minn., sexually assaulting the girl and killing her before leaving her body 80 miles to the north in a swampy area of central Minnesota.

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Zachary T. Anderson, 25, who has lived in Monticello and, most recently, Coon Rapids, was charged in Cass County District Court with second-degree murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and theft of a motor vehicle.

In Watkins, population 1,000, nearly 1,000 people attended a vigil for Alayna on Tuesday evening. Holding candles, they gathered under the stately tower of the Church of St. Anthony across the street from the Ertls’ house. On a video screen, a larger-than-life image of the sandy-haired girl in a flowery headband looked out over the crowd.

The charges say that Anderson strangled the girl, struck her in the head and sexually assaulted her. The pink Princess Elsa blanket that Alayna routinely slept with was found near her unclothed body, left submerged in water on property owned by Anderson’s family, the criminal complaint said.

When law enforcement encountered Anderson on the land Saturday afternoon, he was standing knee-high in the swamp, his left wrist cut, the charging document read. A bloodstained suicide note was found on a table in the cabin, along with a shotgun and ammunition, the complaint added.

Anderson, who has been jailed since Saturday, appeared before District Judge David Harrington in Walker late Tuesday morning. The court granted him a public defender.

A stocky man with a heavy mustache, Anderson was dressed in orange jail garb and shackled at the wrists and ankles as he entered the courtroom with an audience of about a dozen. He sat quietly, speaking only to answer a few questions from Harrington.

Bail was set at $2 million without conditions or $1 million with conditions, which include not being able to leave the state or have any contact with the Ertl family or their property. Anderson is due back in court on Oct. 10.

An attorney for the state asked for bail of up to $3 million, pointing to forensic evidence that Alayna was sexually assaulted and that authorities found her body in the water and hidden by debris.

An attorney for Anderson countered that his client has no criminal record before this case and has lived in Minnesota his entire life.

The criminal complaint and police accounts reveal what started as an uneventful early Saturday morning in the Ertls’ home, followed by the realization that their daughter was gone and the connecting of dots that led investigators to Anderson and, ultimately, Alayna.