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