The man who led authorities to the body of Alayana Ertl last summer has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping, raping, and killing the 5-year-old Watkins girl.
Zachary Todd Anderson entered his pleas in a Cass County court on Wednesday, assuring a murder trial will be happening next spring.
The 26-year-old has 19 counts against him, including kidnapping, criminal sexual conduct, and first-degree murder.
A friend of Alayna's father, Anderson had stayed at the Ertl home the night before the girl's disappearance, according to authorities. The next morning Alayna's mom discovered her gone, along with the family truck. A few hours later, an Amber Alert was issued.
Anderson's father then called authorities to tell them his son might be involved, as he had asked permission to use the family cabin near Motley, Cass County.
Police did indeed find the Ertls' stolen truck in a ravine near the cabin, and shortly thereafter Anderson himself, standing knee-deep in swamp water. He was arrested, and eventually pointed police in the direction of Alayna's body, the charges say.
They soon found the girl's naked body, and medical examiners subsequently determined she'd been strangled, bludgeoned, and sexually assaulted, with signs of penetration, according to the charges.
What happens next
Anderson continues to be held in custody in the Crow Wing County jail.
His "not guilty" pleas mean the case is headed to trial, but prosecutors are already facing some obstacles.
According to the St. Cloud Times, Anderson's lawyers have asked the presiding judge to suppress most of the incriminating evidence against him – and to rule his initial statements to police inadmissible in court – on the grounds that "investigators improperly questioned Anderson."
The paper says the trial is scheduled to begin in April 2018, and expected to last three weeks.
GoMN has reached out to the Cass County attorney for comment.