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Minn. man pleads not guilty in raping, killing of 5-year-old girl

Zachary Anderson

WALKER, Minn. – The man charged with raping, kidnapping and murdering 5-year-old Alayna Ertl of Watkins has pleaded not guilty to 19 charges.

Zachary Todd Anderson, 26, formerly of Monticello, entered not guilty pleas Wednesday in Cass County District Court in Walker to all of the charges he faces, according to court records. The case is scheduled for trial in April.

Anderson is accused of kidnapping Ertl from her family home in Watkins in Meeker County on Aug. 20, 2016. Later that day, searchers found her body in a swamp near Motley, where the Anderson family has a cabin.

Anderson faces the possibility of life in prison without parole if convicted of the most serious charges.

According to the criminal complaint, Anderson had told the searchers the girl could be found in the swamp.

District Judge Jana Austad has since ruled that many of the statements he made to investigators at the time of his arrest should be suppressed since he had told them three times he did not want to talk.

According to the criminal complaint, on the night before Ertl’s disappearance, Anderson had stayed overnight at the Ertl home. At 8:30 a.m., Ertl’s mother found the girl was missing and discovered that Anderson and the family’s GMC Sierra pickup truck were gone. Meeker County authorities were notified, and an Amber Alert was issued later that morning.

Authorities tracked down Anderson at his family’s cabin in rural Cass County later that day. His father had called authorities, believing his son was the cause of the Amber Alert. Law enforcement officers found Anderson knee-deep in water in a swampy area, with cuts to his wrist.

An autopsy determined Ertl died from strangulation and that she suffered blunt force trauma to the head, according to the court records. The forensic examination also revealed evidence of sexual assault.

The charges against Anderson include first-degree and second-degree murder, first-degree and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping, interference with a dead body and motor vehicle theft.

Anderson was first charged in August 2016, and then was indicted by a grand jury one year ago. At that time, bail was set at $3 million without conditions or $1.5 million with conditions.

Anderson remains in custody in the Crow Wing County Jail.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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