After 50 Years, Pennsylvania Pastor Arrested For Murder Of Eight-Year-Old Girl Who Was Attending His Bible Camp

Published July 26, 2023

An 83-year-old former pastor, David Zandstra, has been arrested for the 1975 murder of eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington.

Gretchen Harrington

Delaware County District Attorney’s OfficeGretchen Harrington was just eight years old when she was killed in August 1975.

On a summer day in 1975, eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington was killed while walking to Bible camp in Broomall, Pennsylvania. Now, a pastor who knew the Harrington family has been charged with her murder.

“[C]harges have been brought against David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Georgia,” the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office explained in a statement, noting that Zandstra had confessed. “Zandstra has been charged with criminal homicide, murder of the first, second, and third degree, as well as kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime.”

The story began on Aug. 15, 1975, when Gretchen set out to attend a Bible camp held at two churches: the Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, where Zandstra was pastor, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, where her father was the pastor.

When Gretchen failed to appear at her father’s church later that morning, he called Trinity Church and spoke with Zandstra’s wife. Shortly afterward, The New York Times reports that Zandstra himself called the police to report Gretchen missing.

Two months later, Gretchen’s skeletal remains were discovered at Ridley Creek State Park. A coroner classified the eight year old’s death as a homicide, determining that Gretchen had died from blunt impacts to the head.

But it took almost 50 years to determine what had happened to her.

Gretchen Harrington Missing Poster

YouTubeAn article about Gretchen Harrington’s 1975 disappearance. Her body was found two months later, in October.

As The New York Times reports, police got a break in the case earlier this year when a woman identified as “CI #1” came forward. She had gone to school with Gretchen and her sister, Zoey, and had known Zandstra’s daughter.

The witness told police that Zandstra had touched her inappropriately twice when she attended sleepovers at his house. She also showed them diary entries from September 1975 in which she muses that Zandstra may have tried to kidnap a different girl in town.

“Guess what? A man tried to kidnap Holly twice,” the witness wrote in her diary. “It’s a secret so I can’t tell anyone, but I think he might be the one who kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. [Zandstra].”

Following this lead, NBC News reports, police went to speak to Zandstra in Marietta, Georgia, on July 17, 2023. At first, Zandstra denied having anything to do with Gretchen’s murder. But when the police told him about their new witness and her accusations against him, he confessed.

“He was relieved,” State Police Trooper Eugene Tray said according to NBC News. “It was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders.”

David Zandstra

Delaware County District Attorney’s OfficeDavid Zandstra eventually confessed to killing Gretchen Harrington, and told police what he’d done to her.

As Zandstra told the police, he saw Gretchen walking to church on the morning of Aug. 15, 1975, and picked her up in his car. Instead of driving her to church, however, Zandstra drove her to a wooded area where he ejaculated and demanded that she take off her clothing. When Gretchen refused, Zandstra struck her with his fist, killing her.

Zandstra then covered her half-naked body with sticks and drove to work as normal. Over the next two months, he pretended to know nothing about Gretchen’s death and, according to PEOPLE, acted as a family friend who supported the Harringtons through Gretchen’s funeral.

“It’s difficult to express the emotions that we are feeling as we take one step closer to justice,” Harrington’s family said in a statement reported by PEOPLE. “The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day…[we are] extremely hopeful that the person who is responsible for the heinous crime that was committed against our Gretchen will be held accountable.”

Delaware County district attorney Jack Stollsteimer plans to do exactly that.

“We’re going to try him, we’re going to convict him and he’s going to die in jail,” Mr. Stollsteimer said at a news conference about Zandstra’s arrest. “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.”

After reading about how David Zandstra was arrested for the 1975 murder of eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington, look through these disturbing cold cases that have tragically gone unsolved. Or, see how the cold case of the “Boy in the Box” was finally solved after 65 years.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "After 50 Years, Pennsylvania Pastor Arrested For Murder Of Eight-Year-Old Girl Who Was Attending His Bible Camp.", July 26, 2023, Accessed April 23, 2024.