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Zachary Anderson pleads guilty to killing 5-year-old Watkins girl, sentenced to life-no release

Zachary Todd Anderson

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

Zachary Todd Anderson was scheduled to appear Friday in a Cass County District Courtroom in Walker for a pre-trial hearing in front of Judge Jana M. Austad. Instead he entered a plea of guilt to 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.

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 include first-degree murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, felony kidnapping and interfering with a dead body.

The case against Anderson began about 10 a.m. Aug. 20, 2016, when Meeker County Sheriff's Office received a report of a missing child. According to the criminal complaint, Anderson was at Alayna's house the night before and stayed overnight. When the girl's parents woke up, Alayna and Anderson were gone, as well as the parents' GMC Sierra truck.

Later that day, authorities tracked down Anderson and Alayna at Anderson's family's cabin in the Wilderness Park Homeowners Association north of Motley in Cass County.

Cass County sheriff's deputies, among other law enforcement officers, swept the area and found Anderson, who was in knee-deep water in a swampy wooded area, the complaint stated. Anderson eventually told investigators where Alayna was hidden and officers found the girl's deceased, naked body completely submerged in the water and hidden under some brush and other debris, the complaint stated.

The initial findings of Alayna's autopsy indicated 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 a sexual assault, including sexual penetration.