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Retired pastor charged with 1975 murder of 8-year-old girl

A retired minister was arrested for the 1975 murder of an 8-year-old girl who was walking to Bible camp.
Retired pastor charged with 1975 murder of 8-year-old girl
Posted at 4:13 PM, Jul 26, 2023

Gretchen Harrington left her home the morning of Aug. 15, 1975 to walk to summer Bible camp. She was never seen alive again.

The 8-year-old's skeletal remains were found months after her disappearance from Marple Township, Pennsylvania, but since then, investigators hadn't been able to track down who killed her.

That was until this month, nearly 48 years later.

Pennsylvania's Delaware County police have now charged 83-year-old retired minister David Zandstra with criminal homicide, murder of the first, second and third degree, kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime in Harrington's case.

"We can't prevent evil all the time, but we can certainly hold it to account. And this proves that after 48 years, it happens. Law enforcement does that," said Brandon Graeff, chief of police in Marple Township.

Zandstra was arrested in Georgia on July 17 after allegedly confessing to the crime amid questioning. He remains there after being denied bail and is currently fighting extradition to Pennsylvania, according to District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer. The DA's office, however, is going after a governor's warrant to bring him to Delaware County.

"We're going to try him, we're going to convict him and he's going to die in jail. And then he's going to have to find out what the God he professes to believe in holds for those who are this evil to our children," Stollsteimer said at a press conference.

Zandstra was the pastor at one of two churches used by the Bible camp Harrington was attending. Harrington's father was the pastor at the other church used by the camp.

On that August morning in 1975, Zandstra offered Harrington a ride to camp after seeing her walking there alone. This was a rarity for the 8-year-old who usually walked to camp with her sisters, but that day, she was by herself due to a recent birth in her family. 

The girl willingly got in the car, presumably trusting her family friend and also the father of one of her best friends to get her safely to camp. But when she didn't show up to her father's church around an hour-and-a-half later, he became concerned, as did the rest of the camp.

Her father then called Zandstra's church, trying to find his daughter. And at the request of his fellow pastor, Zandstra himself called the local police department to report her missing.

Widespread searches ensued in the weeks that followed and ended two months later when Harrington's body was found, with her clothes "folded and in a neat pile" nearby and her underwear hanging from a tree branch, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The cause of death was ruled a homicide, 

Police interviewed Zandstra two separate times, once before she was found and after. He denied seeing her that day, but investigators did note inaccuracies in his statements and questions about how he knew so much about Harrington's appearance that day despite her never arriving to camp.

Over the the next nearly five decades, authorities continued trying to find solid leads with no luck. Then in January this year, a confidential source, referred to as CI#1 in the complaint, shared new information with police, leading them to Zandstra.

The woman told police she often slept over at Zandstra's home, as she was best friends with his daughter. During one sleepover when she was 10 years old, CI#1 said she woke up to Zandstra groping her groin area. She shared this with his daughter, who replied that her father did that sometimes, the complaint said.

The unnamed source also said a classmate was nearly kidnapped twice, and her diary entry from 1975 noted her belief the culprit was likely Zandstra. This pushed investigators to travel to the man's new home near Atlanta to interview him. 

During the interview on July 17, Zandstra again denied his involvement in Harrington's disappearance, but after being presented evidence from CI#1, he confessed.

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The former pastor admitted to offering Harrington a ride in his green station wagon that August day, corroborating multiple witnesses who said they saw her speaking to a man driving that car. He then took her to a nearby wooded area, where he asked her to remove her clothes. When she refused, he struck her head with his fist, causing her to bleed. Believing she was dead, he attempted to cover her body then left the area.

After this confession, Trooper Eugene Tray said Zandstra looked "relieved," though he said he doesn't think the now 84-year-old ever thought this arrest would come.

"I don't know if he's sorry for what he did, but this is a weight off his shoulders for sure," Tray said.

Authorities will now compare Zandstra's DNA to other open cases in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Because he moved from Pennsylvania to Texas and Georgia, they worry he could have committed more crimes that have gone unsolved, especially as someone "in a position of power" within the ministry, authorities said. They urge anyone with information to contact investigators.

As for the victim's family, Harrington's father has since died, but her mother and sisters are still alive. They've asked for privacy, but in a statement, they thanked police for their "continual pursuit of justice" and "never stopping in their constant search for answers."

"...We are extremely hopeful that the person who is responsible for the heinous crime that was committed against our Gretchen will be held accountable. It's difficult to express the emotions that we are feeling as we take one step closer to justice," the family said in a statement.

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