Alayna Ertl disappeared from her family home in Watkins, Minnesota, on August 20, 2016. The girl, who was five years old at the time, was last seen at 2:30 a.m. by her mother. In the morning, her parents found that Alayna, the family’s overnight house guest and their vehicle had all vanished.
Alayna lived with her brother Carter and parents Matthew and Kayla in Watkins, a small community around 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Alayna was born on October 31, 2010. The little girl liked to accompany her father when he went hunting and adored My Little Pony toys. “She would come in our room every morning and give us a kiss good morning and make sure everybody else was OK,” Kayla told CBS Minnesota in October 2016.
The evening before Alayna went missing, her father played softball with his co-worker, Zachary Anderson. The pair then went off to meet some other friends. Because Anderson lived an hour’s drive away, he would sometimes stay over at Matthew’s house after their softball games.
On the night in question, Matthew and Anderson were apparently up until 4:00 a.m. Court documents state that at around 2:30 a.m. Alayna’s mother carried her daughter to bed, after the little girl had dozed off on the couch. Kayla then reportedly wrapped her daughter up in a pink Frozen blanket.
However, at 8:30 a.m. the following morning, Matthew and Kayla noticed that Alayna and Anderson had disappeared, along with Matthew’s 2002 GMC Sierra and phone. Shortly afterwards they contacted the police, who decided to put out an Amber Alert after being unable to locate the missing girl.
The Cass County Sheriff’s Office was contacted by the father of Anderson that same afternoon. He suspected that his son was involved in the incident, according to the court documents. Anderson had reportedly phoned him earlier that day, asking if he could visit a cabin that the family owned in Motley, around 90 minutes north of Watkins.
Police officers reportedly found the Sierra in a ravine close to the cabin. Court documents state that the deputies discovered “an apparent suicide note,” loose ammunition and a shotgun in the unoccupied cabin. Anderson was then apparently seen by K-9 officers shortly afterwards. He was several hundred yards away from the cabin, up to his knees in swampland and sporting cuts on his left wrist, the court documents state.
After arresting Anderson, officers asked him to help them locate the girl. Although he did not immediately assist, eventually he took them to an area of the swamp where he said the girl’s body could be located, according to a press release from the Cass County Attorney’s Office. Officers then saw Alayna’s pink Princess Elsa blanket and soon after spotted her dead body. She was entirely submerged, naked and covered by debris and brush, court documents state.
The cause of death was “homicidal violence,” according to the autopsy. Blunt force trauma to the girl’s head and strangulation were both contributory factors. A criminal complaint revealed that Alayna had been sexually assaulted. According to court records, the site at which the police found Alayna’s body was close to a location identified by a K-9 unit that had traced a scent trail from the cabin.
Anderson, then 26, pleaded not guilty to all charges, including first-degree criminal sexual conduct, interference with a dead body, kidnapping, first-degree murder and theft of a motor vehicle. And in the summer of 2017 his attorney asked the court to disallow much of the most damning evidence gathered at the crime scene.
Earlier that year, in May 2017 Cass County District Court Judge Jana Austad stated that investigators had initially questioned Anderson in a way that contravened official procedure. As a result, his first statement to investigators was inadmissible in court. Anderson had apparently explained on three occasions that he did not wish to talk when he was initially arrested. This meant that the evidence explaining that Anderson had told the police where Alayna’s body could be located was now inadmissible.
Additionally, in July 2017 Anderson’s attorney asked the judge to prohibit evidence from being presented at trial that related to items of clothing or blankets found at the scene, the discovery of the little girl’s body and the examination of her corpse. Judge Austad refused to grant that request, however.
Austad ruled that prosecutors could use details about the discovery of Alayna’s body. In her orders, she stated, “The evidence in the record establishes that the recovery of (Alayna Ertl’s) body and her blanket was entirely independent of (Anderson’s) unconstitutionally compelled act of leading officers to where he asserted (Alayna Ertl) would be located.”
Anderson’s lawyer claimed that much of the other evidence was “fruit of the poisonous tree,” alleging that it stemmed from information obtained illegally after the suspect’s arrest. However, in July 2017 prosecutors stated that they would have discovered the little girl’s body even if Anderson had not cooperated. This, they claimed, was due to the infrared radar, bloodhounds, helicopter and K-9 units at their disposal.
Anderson was now in prison, with his trial due to take place between April 2 and April 20, 2018. Pre-trial hearings were scheduled for March 2 and March 26, 2018. Anderson’s traffic violations were his only previous crimes, the Star Tribune reported.
The Ertl family commemorated Alayna’s seventh birthday on October 31, 2017, with an event at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Watkins, according to the Angel Alayna Facebook page. The flyer for the event read, “We hope to see you there to help us celebrate our peanut’s birthday in heaven.”
Kayla Ertl and her family had walked into the same church on August 26, 2016, for Alayna’s funeral, six days after her murder. Hundreds of mourners gathered to say goodbye. A wooden casket with her remains inside was then carried from the church to a nearby cemetery. Alayna’s parents and brother held hands, sobbing with grief along the way.
A few days earlier, many Watkins residents had come together to commemorate the little girl’s life. At the service, Alayna’s parents lit the first candles. Hundreds of purple and pink balloons floated into the night sky, to the accompaniment of the song “Let It Go” from Frozen. According to the Daily Mail, the little girl’s obituary read, “Alayna gave joy to our lives by always having a smile and kind words to say. She loved learning from her brother and always gave the best hugs.”
On March 2, 2018, Anderson, now 27, pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of Alayna. He will serve a life in prison with no parole. Cass County prosecutor Ben Lindstrom told the Star Tribune that Anderson’s prosecution was cut short when his attorneys indicated that he would admit to his crimes. “This is a case where we weren’t going to make a compromise,” Lindstrom said.
Anderson will not face trial, as he has already been given his sentence, which is the most severe possible. Lindstrom said that he did not wish to put the Ertl family through an unnecessarily lengthy trial. When contacted at his family home by the Star Tribune on March 2, 2018, Matthew Ertl stated that he and his wife had nothing else to say at present.