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Murder, kidnapping charges await man accused of killing Watkins 5-year-old

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An entrance to Wilderness Park Estates leads into the area that Alayna Ertl was found Saturday in the southern portion of the residential park, located about 3 miles east of Leader in Cass County. (Kelly Humphrey, Forum News Service)3 / 3

BRAINERD, Minn. --An Amber Alert on Saturday for a missing 5-year-old Watkins girl turned into a homicide investigation within hours, after tips led investigators to her body in rural Cass County.

Preliminary autopsy results released Sunday indicate Alayna Jeanne Ertl died of "homicidal violence," according to a news release from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The 25-year-old family friend suspected of abducting and killing the girl was jailed Saturday.

Zachary Todd Anderson, of Coon Rapids, was being held without bail in the Crow Wing County Jail in Brainerd, awaiting charges early this week in connection with the death of Ertl.

Ertl was found dead in a swampy, wooded area approximately a quarter of a mile from Anderson family's cabin in rural Cass County, according to the BCA, and information from Anderson allegedly led authorities there.

He booked into the jail about 10 p.m. Saturday on suspicion of first-degree murder and kidnapping charges, according to the jail's log. He could appear in Cass County District Court as soon as Monday or Tuesday, the BCA said.

The Crow Wing County Jail has an inmate contract with the Cass County Jail, a Cass County corrections officer said Sunday.

The BCA release stated Anderson was being held in Crow Wing County due to "space issues" at the Cass County Jail.

Kayla Ertl told authorities she put her daughter to bed around 2 a.m. at the family's home at 221 Meeker Ave. SW in Watkins, according to the Amber Alert.

That was the last time she saw Alayna. The next time she checked on her daughter, around 8 a.m. Saturday, Alayna was missing.

So was Anderson, along with a 2002 GMC Sierra pickup owned by the girl's father, Matt Ertl, according to the Amber Alert. Anderson had reportedly stayed at the Ertl home that night.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Kayla and Matt Ertl filed a missing person report with the Meeker County Sheriff's Office.

Authorities had information that Anderson may have been in Todd County about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, via Matt Ertl's cell phone left inside the vehicle.

The latest pinged location as late as 9 a.m. was still Todd County. Authorities said the cellphone was then shut off.

Meeker County Deputies canvassed the Watkins area, but were unable to locate Ertl or Anderson. The BCA then joined the investigation, and canvassed local businesses for video surveillance images. None of the footage led to Ertl or Anderson's locations.

That led the BCA to issue an Amber Alert about 1:30 p.m. Saturday, saying authorities believed Anderson had left the house with Alayna in her father's white pickup truck.

Law enforcement located the stolen vehicle Saturday afternoon at a cabin at 4926 Iroquois Trail Loop S.W. in Wilderness Park Estates, a residential park located about three miles east of the village of Leader in Cass County, 35 miles northwest of Brainerd.

The vehicle and cabin were both empty.

Additional law enforcement personnel were brought in to help search the area.

Police dog officers apprehended Anderson about 4:24 p.m. in a wooded area a quarter of a mile from the cabin. According to the BCA, Anderson did not have a weapon and did not resist arrest.

Alayna Ertl's body was found around 5 p.m. Saturday near the cabin, about 100 miles north of her Watkins home. She was pronounced dead when police arrived on the scene. Her body's discovery was reported by Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze at 6:02 p.m. Saturday and the Amber Alert was cancelled.

"Sadly the body of Alayna Ertl has been found and this has turned into a homicide investigation," the Meeker County sheriff's office posted on its Facebook page Saturday night.

Anderson was a friend of the family and a co-worker of Matt Ertl's, according to authorities. He had previously been at the Ertl residence and had stayed overnight before, according to Cruze.

He does not have a criminal history in Minnesota, other than minor traffic violations, according to online court records.

Anderson graduated from Monticello High School, according a Facebook page under his name.

On Sunday, the Meeker County Sheriff's Office was referring media inquiries to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Ertl Funeral Home in Watkins is handling arrangements. Funeral director Tom Ertl is a cousin of Alayna's grandfather Rick Ertl.

"I feel the same as everybody else," Tom Ertl told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It's just sickening."

A GoFundMe web page, at gofundme.com/alaynajeanne, was set up Sunday to help offset memorial expenses. As of 10:30 p.m. Sunday, nearly $14,000 had been raised through the site in eight hours.

Kayla Ertl declined to comment when contacted by the Pioneer Press Sunday afternoon.

A Facebook profile under Kayla's name added a photo without comment Sunday morning: Alayna among pink, puffy clouds.

The Meeker and Cass County sheriff's offices are continuing to work together on the ongoing investigation.

Anyone with information or who had seen Ertl, the suspect Anderson or the vehicle he was driving are encouraged to call the Meeker County Sheriff's Office at 320-693-5400.

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