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Man gets life in prison for killing 5-year-old central Minn. girl

Zachary Todd Anderson

WALKER, Minn. -- A 27-year-old Coon Rapids man on Friday, March 2, admitted to killing 5-year-old Alayna Jeanne Ertl of Watkins in the summer of 2016.

Zachary Todd Anderson was scheduled to appear in a Cass County District Courtroom in Walker for a pre-trial hearing Friday morning in front of Judge Jana M. Austad. Instead, he entered a plea of guilt for first-degree murder involving first-degree criminal sexual conduct with sexual penetration.

Cass County Attorney Benjamin Lindstrom, who prosecuted the case, said the mandatory penalty in Minnesota for this crime is imprisonment for life without the possibility of release. Anderson was sentenced immediately after entering his guilty plea.

In admitting his guilt, Anderson described the details of the crime in court as family members and authorities listened on, Lindstrom said. Family members also read victim impact statements.

Anderson was indicted by a grand jury on 19 criminal counts in October 2016 for the death of Ertl. In October, Anderson pleaded not guilty to all 19 criminal charges -- which included first-degree murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, felony kidnapping and interfering with a dead body.

Lindstrom said with Anderson’s guilty plea and the executed life sentence without possibility of release, a jury trial on the remaining 18 counts in the indictment were not necessary.

“Our goal was to get the maximum sentence of what Minnesota law allows of life in prison without release and that is what this plea did,” Lindstrom said. “If people are going to hurt our kids, we will do everything we can by law to make it right. This doesn’t make it right but it’s the most we can do under the law.

“It was his decision to accept (the plea), I didn’t expect it to actually happen. He had no incentive to do it. We would have gone to a jury trial and the end result would have been exactly the same, in my opinion.”

According to Rule 15 under Minnesota law, a judge cannot accept a guilty plea until the defendant is sworn in, questioned about the case and understands his rights and the crime, Lindstrom said. Anderson’s attorney, Kip Fontaine from Thief River Falls, and Lindstrom went through the Rule 15 petition with Anderson and they both asked him questions, including details on what happened Aug. 19-20 of 2016. The events began with Anderson kidnapping Alayna from her home in Meeker County, and ended with him sexually assaulting and leaving her for dead in Cass County.

Lindstrom said the courtroom was filled with family members who became emotional when Anderson spoke of the details of what happened to Alayna. Lindstrom said he couldn’t speak about Anderson’s emotional state in court.

Calls were made to Fontaine but were not returned.

The case

According to the criminal complaint filed Aug. 23, 2016, against Anderson, Alayna's parents said Anderson played softball with the little girl's father Friday night, Aug. 19, 2016. After playing softball, Anderson and the father went out with friends and then the father came home at 2:30 a.m. Anderson arrived at the home between 3:30-3:45 a.m. Aug. 20, 2016. The two visited until 4 a.m. and the father retired for the night, the complaint stated.

The complaint stated Alayna fell asleep on the couch and her mother carried her to her room at 2:30 a.m. The mother indicated to officers her daughter slept with a pink Princess Elsa blanket from the Disney movie "Frozen."

At 8 a.m. Aug. 20, both Alayna and Anderson were gone. The parents’ white GMC Sierra truck also was missing with the father's cellphone inside.

Deputies canvassed the neighborhood searching for Alayna. They also contacted the family's cellphone provider to try to locate the whereabouts of Anderson. When Alayna was not located during the search, the Meeker County Sheriff's Office contacted the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to request assistance with the investigation. An AMBER Alert was issued at 1:12 p.m.

Just before 2 p.m. that day, the Cass County Sheriff's Office dispatch center was contacted by Anderson's father. His father told Cass County officials he believed his son was the subject of the AMBER Alert sent out statewide. He stated his son called earlier in the day and wanted permission to go to the family's cabin on Iroquois Loop Trail Southwest, Motley, in the Wilderness Park Homeowners' Association in Cass County. Anderson's father gave officers permission to enter his property and cabin to aid in their search.

Cass County sheriff's deputies proceeded to the cabin and observed the white roof of the stolen truck, which was visible in a ravine at the southwest end of the property. The vehicle was pulled into the ravine and into a brushy/wooded area in an apparent attempt to conceal its location, the complaint stated. The vehicle was unoccupied. Officers then approached the cabin to look for Anderson and Alayna. Concerned for the welfare of the child, officers entered the unsecured cabin but no one was inside. However, in plain view, officers observed a single shot 20-gauge shotgun on the kitchen table with multiple 20-gauge rounds spilled about. Officers also observed numerous 12-gauge rounds, but no 12-gauge shotgun. Also on the table was an apparent suicide note with apparent blood on the upper corner, the complaint stated. The keys for the truck also were on the table.

More law enforcement arrived and officers observed recent foot traffic leading past the cabin into the woods to the north, as well as to the woods to the southwest of the truck. The K-9 units from Cass County and Baxter Police Department began to search the two areas where it appeared there had been recent foot traffic going into the woods. Deputies and another K-9 unit began to search the area past the truck.

At 4:23 p.m. Aug. 20, 2016, officers found Anderson, who was in knee-deep water in a swampy area. Officers observed Anderson had fresh lacerations to his left wrist. Anderson was arrested without incident. He was read his Miranda warning at that time and was asked the location of "the girl" and he initially responded, "What girl?" the complaint stated.

Anderson was led out of the swamp and placed into a squad car. Investigators from the BCA spoke with Anderson, who indicated when asked, the child was hidden in the swamp under some debris. Anderson agreed to show officers the approximate location of where she was hidden. He walked with officers to the edge of the swamp and pointed in a general direction indicating she was "over there."

Officers were able to observe areas of freshly trampled swamp grass and began to search in that vicinity. An investigator followed the trampled grass for 80 yards away from the location, where he observed the corner of a pink blanket sticking out from under some brush in knee-deep water. He pulled the blanket out and discovered it was a pink Disney blanket consistent with the blanket described by Alayna's mother. The blanket did not appear to have been in that location very long as it did not have signs of deterioration. Officers continued to search the area and discovered the girl's dead, naked body completely submerged in the water and hidden under some brush and other debris, the complaint stated.

The initial findings of the autopsy indicate the cause of death was homicidal violence due to strangulation, with other evidence of blunt force trauma to the victim's head. The forensic examination of the victim also revealed evidence of sexual assault, including sexual penetration.

Jennifer Kraus

A big part of my day is chasing down tips on a variety of breaking news stories, relating to vehicle crashes, fires, police incidents and court cases. I’m always thankful when people call in tips to alert me on an incident so I can follow up and see if the tip is actually something that occurred or is a rumor. It’s a big scope to keep track of as we not only cover Brainerd and Crow Wing County incidents, but we also cover the surrounding counties and cities. I also gather information on the entertainment scene, so if you are hosting a band or choir concert, an art exhibit, a play or other theater production -- I want to hear about it. If you know of a story on any of these beats, give me a shout! To help support local journalism, click here to sign up to receive a Dispatch digital subscription to our e-edition or to receive the printed paper at your door, or to get both.

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