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Man charged with sexual assault, murder in death of 5-year-old Alayna Ertl

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A 25-year-old man suspected of abducting 5-year-old Alayna Ertl from her Watkins home and then leaving her body in a swampy area is now charged.

Zachary Todd Anderson, 25, of Coon Rapids, was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, kidnapping and theft of a motor vehicle. He made his first court appearance that morning, where bail was set at $2 million without conditions, according to a news release.

Alayna's body was found Saturday afternoon in a "swampy wooded area" in rural Cass County, a few hundred yards from a cabin Anderson's family owns. Anderson was also arrested on the property without incident, according to the charges.

A medical examiner ruled Alayna died from strangulation, and there was evidence of blunt force trauma to her head, as well as evidence of sexual assault, including penetration, the criminal complaint says.

Officials issued an Amber Alert at 1:12 p.m. Saturday, about five hours after Alayna's mother discovered she, Anderson and the family's truck were missing. Anderson's father called authorities after the Amber Alert went out to tell them his son might be involved, and directed them to the family's cabin. You can read more details from the charges at the bottom of the story.

Alayna was 'our peanut'

Alayna is being remembered as "always having a smile and kind words to say," according to her obituary on the funeral home's website.

She was an animal lover, princess, singer, great friend and "our peanut," the obituary continues. She enjoyed learning from her brother and "always gave the best hugs."

A funeral for Alayna will be held at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Watkins on Friday, with a visitation set for Thursday at Ertl Funeral Home in Watkins, her obituary says.

A GoFundMe page has also been set up for Alayna’s family to help “ease some of the … burdens they are experiencing.” As of Tuesday morning, the campaign had raised $28,862, surpassing its $10,000 goal.

The fundraising site also says there is a candlelight vigil planned to honor Alayna Tuesday night. People are expected to gather at the Church of St. Anthony in Watkins at 8:30 p.m., KARE 11 says.

More from the charges

Anderson's next court date is set for Oct. 10. If convicted, he could face up to 40 years in prison for the murder and kidnapping charges, while the criminal sexual conduct charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Before reading on, note that some of the details could be considered disturbing.

According to the criminal complaint:

Alayna had fallen asleep on the couch, and around 2:30 a.m. Saturday her mother carried her into her bedroom to sleep with her pink Princess Elsa (from the Disney movie "Frozen") blanket.

Anderson, who plays softball with Alayna's father, was staying at the Ertls' Watkins home following a game. The two visited until about 4 a.m.

Around 8:30 a.m., Alayna's mother discovered she was missing.

Just before 2 p.m., a man who said he was Anderson's father told investigators his son had asked to use the family's cabin in Cass County. There, officials found the stolen vehicle in a ravine, noting Anderson had apparently attempted to hide it.

When they went into the cabin, they discovered a shotgun and a suicide note with "apparent blood on the upper corner."

By 4:23 p.m. police located Anderson, who was standing in knee-deep swampy water. He was arrested without incident.

He eventually told investigators Alayna was hidden in the swamp under some debris, and pointed police in the direction of her body. An investigator saw the corner of Alayna's pink blanket sticking out from under some brush.

Officials continued to search the area, eventually finding Alayna's naked body.

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