Alayna Jeanne Ertl was found dead on Saturday afternoon, with authorities discovering her body just hours after the 5-year-old girl went missing from her Minnesota home and arresting the man they believe is responsible.
Authorities announced in the evening hours that they found Ertl’s body close to 90 minutes from her home, KSTP reported. The exact circumstances of her death were not immediately known, but there are reports that police now consider her disappearance to be a homicide investigation.
The search for Alayna Ertl had widened on Saturday after authorities in Minnesota said the 5-year-old girl was abducted from her home in Watkins by a family friend.
Authorities issued an Amber Alert for the missing 5-year-old girl within hours of when she reportedly was taken from her home, the SC Times reported. Police believe Alayna had been abducted from her home sometime between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. by 26-year-old Zachary Todd Anderson, a family friend.
Anderson was believed to be driving a stolen 2002 GMT Sierra with the license plate 107 KMT.
Reports on Saturday evening indicated that Anderson is now in police custody.
Police said early on Saturday that Anderson, who was staying overnight with Alayna’s family, may have taken the girl some distance from her home. The young girl’s father had left his cell phone in the stolen truck, and authorities were able to track it on Saturday morning to Todd County, which is about 90 minutes away from her home, CBS Minnesota reported.
It was not yet clear if the 5-year-old’s body was found near the cell phone ping, though it was reportedly in the same county that she was found dead.
The exact nature of Alayna Ertl’s disappearance was not yet known. Police have not said exactly how the girl was taken or whether she might have been killed at her home. They did note that Anderson was not believed to have a criminal history of sex offender behavior.
CBS Minnesota had additional details about Zachary Anderson.
“The suspect is described as a white man who stands 5-feet-10-inches tall, weighs about 200 pounds and has dark hair and a short, shaggy beard. He was last seen wearing a black T-shirt with a drawing of a rat with a mug of beer. The shirt reads ‘Riverside Tavern, Forest City, MN. Home Of The River Rats.'”
Before announcing that Alayna Jeanne Ertl had been found dead, police said they were intensifying the search for the missing girl across Todd County.
“Our number one priority today is to find that girl and that continues to be our focus is the girl,” said Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze, via KSTP.
When asked if Anderson had been arrested, Cruze noted that the investigation had spread to a number of law enforcement agencies and that he had not yet confirmed an arrest.
“We need to verify information from up north,” he said. “There are multiple agencies that are working with us. There’s a lot of moving parts right now.”
It appears that Anderson’s arrest was later confirmed by police, however.
Local residents told KSTP that they saw an expansive search for the girl, with helicopters overhead combing the largely wooded area.
Alayna’s abduction also made news beyond Minnesota, with word of her disappearance spreading quickly online and many locals sharing information about the girl in the hopes that she might be found alive. Many others shared their condolences with Alayna’s family and mourned her death in the time after police announced that her body had been found.
Police have yet to release information on how Alayna Jeanne Ertl was killed or what charges Zachary Anderson may face for her death.
[Image via Meeker County Sheriff’s Office]