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Former pastor arrested in 1975 murder of young girl walking to his church

The murder of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington shook Marple Township, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Authorities say the man recently confessed.
/ Source: NBC News

On. Aug. 15, 1975, 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington was walking to Bible camp in a township outside Philadelphia when she was kidnapped and murdered.

On Monday, authorities said a man who had been the pastor of one of the camp’s host churches has been arrested and charged with Harrington’s murder.

The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office said David Zandstra, 83, recently confessed after he was confronted with new evidence, including a witness’s allegations that the former pastor groped her and may have tried to kidnap another local girl.

Gretchen Harrington.
Gretchen Harrington.Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

A law office representing Zandstra said it was aware of the charges but had no comment, according to NBC Philadelphia.

The allegations against him include criminal homicide; murder in the first, second and third degrees; kidnapping; and the possession of an instrument of crime. The alleged crimes happened in Marple Township, about 10 miles west of Philadelphia.

The new witness, who was not identified, provided a diary, prosecutors said. In it, she wrote an entry one month after Harrington went missing, speculating that Zandstra may have been responsible for twice trying to kidnap another girl, prosecutors said in the criminal complaint against Zandstra.

“Guess what?” the witness is quoted as writing in an entry dated Sept. 15, 1975. “A man tried to kidnap Holly twice! It’s a secret I can’t tell anyone, but I think he might be the one who kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z.”

She also said she was groped by the suspect during a sleepover at his home seven days before Harrington went missing, according to the complaint. The witness, 10 at the time, was best friends with one of Zandstra’s daughters.

Talking to the suspect

On July 17, officials interviewed Zandstra near his home in Georgia, according to the complaint and to Delaware County D.A.’s spokesperson Margie McAboy.

He volunteered to speak, State Police Trooper Eugene Tray said at Monday’s news conference, and he was read Miranda rights.

Confronted with the new witness information, Tray said, Zandstra confessed.

“He was relieved,” the trooper said. “It was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders.”

Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Gretchen’s father was the pastor of Reformed Presbyterian Church in Marple Township, Pennsylvania. Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

Zandstra said that he was driving Aug. 15, 1975, when he came upon Harrington walking to the Bible camp hosted by his congregation, Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, the criminal complaint states.

Prosecutors said he routinely picked children up to take them to the mid-morning camp. Harrington was best friends with another daughter in the Zandstra household, so he was a familiar face, they said in the complaint.

Prosecutors said she was last seen two blocks from home.

Zandstra told the officers he picked up Harrington as she walked to the church and drove her to nearby woods, where he parked. She asked him to take her home, but he ordered her to take off her clothes. When she refused to disrobe, he punched her in the head, he said, and she never regained consciousness, the filing stated.

Lawrence Road.
Lawrence Road.Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

The suspect left her body, described in the complaint as “half-naked,” in the woods, and he covered it with foliage, according to the complaint.

Harrington’s father was the pastor at an adjacent church, Reformed Presbyterian Church, which hosted the second half of each day’s summer Bible camp, prosecutors said.

The victim usually walked with her two sisters, but they stayed home that day because her mother had just given birth, prosecutors said. Harrington’s father encouraged her to walk alone because she had a perfect attendance record, they said.

When she didn’t show up at 11 a.m. at Reformed Presbyterian Church, Harrington’s father drove off in an attempt to find her along adjacent Lawrence Road, according to the complaint. When the clock marked her as 23 minutes late, he called police, the filing states.

Unusual details

He gave a description noting that Harrington was 3 feet 6 inches, 50 pounds, with blonde pigtails, according to the complaint. Interviewed days later, Zandstra described specific details about the girl’s shorts including that they had a zipper and a snap in front but no visible buttons, the complaint said.

The details were unusual for two reasons, prosecutors argued: The girl never arrived at Bible camp, thus he wouldn’t have seen her there; and the shorts were unique, handmade by the girl’s mother.

On Oct. 14, 1975, Harrington’s remains were discovered in a state park in nearby Edgmont Township.

Cause and manner of death was homicide by at least two strikes to the head, the complaint stated.

Harrington’s relatives said they are grateful to police and prosecutors.

“The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day,” the family said in a statement.

Marple Township Police Chief Graeff Brandon said Harrington’s time on Earth was “a life unfulfilled … because of pure evil and depravity.”

He said during Monday’s news conference that her murder represented a shift for a suburb that had once felt relatively innocent and crime-free.

“It transformed this community,” the chief said. “It was Anytown, U.S.A.”

More victims?

Prosecutors said Zandstra left the church and moved away from the area, settling first in Plano, Texas, and then in Georgia, where he was in the Cobb County Adult Detention Facility on Monday for a sixth day with no bail, according to prosecutors and inmate records.

Authorities have expressed concern there may be more victims, and they asked anyone with information to reach out. State police were in the process of comparing his DNA to other cold or open cases, the D.A.’s office said in a statement Monday.

Prosecutors said Zandstra has refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania, which will prolong the process but is unlikely to stop it.

On Monday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the 48-year-old case is closed.

“We’re going to bring him here to Delaware County, we’re going to try him, we’re going to convict him, and he’s going to die in jail,” he said.

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