Former pastor arrested in 1975 for the murder of a young woman who was walking to his church

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

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

The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office said 83-year-old David Zandstra recently confessed after he was confronted with new evidence of his alleged involvement, including a witness story that the former pastor groped her as a child and may have tried to kidnap another local girl.

Gretchen Harington.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 charges against him include intentional homicide, first-, second-, and third-degree murder, kidnapping, and possession of a criminal instrument. The alleged crimes occurred in Marple Township, about 10 miles west of Philadelphia.

The new witness, who was not identified, provided a diary from that time, prosecutors said. In it, he wrote an entry a month after Harrington’s disappearance, 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 September 15, 1975. «A man tried to kidnap Holly twice! It’s a secret I can’t tell anyone, but I think he might have kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z.»

She also said the suspect groped her during a sleepover at her home seven days before Harrington went missing, according to the complaint. The witness, 10 years old at the time, was the best friend of one of Zandstra’s daughters.

Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Prosecutors credited Andrew Martin with reopening the case in 2017, eliminating at least one person of interest and zeroing in on the former pastor.

On July 17, Martin and state trooper Eugene Tray interviewed Zandstra near his Georgia home, according to the complaint and Delaware County Attorney’s spokeswoman Margie McAboy.

The suspect volunteered to speak, the police officer said at Monday’s news conference, and was read Miranda’s rights and told he could have a lawyer present and his words could be used by prosecutors.

Given the new information from witnesses, Tray said, Zandstra confessed.

«He was relieved,» the policeman said. «It was like a weight was lifted off her shoulders.»

Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Gretchen’s father was a pastor at the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Marple, Del. Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

Zandstra admitted that he was driving his green Rambler pickup, a now-defunct model made by Nash and then AMC, on Aug. 15, 1975, when he encountered Harrington walking to the Bible camp hosted by his congregation, Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, according to the criminal complaint.

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

Prosecutors said she was last seen two blocks from her home, on her way to church, by neighbors who spoke to police.

That morning, Zandstra told officers that he picked up Harrington as she was walking to the church and drove her to a nearby woods, where he parked. She asked him to take her to her house, but he ordered her to take her clothes off and ejaculated, she told officers. When she refused to undress, he punched her in the head once, she said, and she never regained consciousness from her, according to the file.

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

The suspect left her body, described in the complaint as «half naked,» in the woods, and covered it with foliage, according to the complaint.

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

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

When she failed to show up for the 11 am Bible study session at the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Harrington’s father wandered off in an attempt to find her on adjacent Lawrence Road, according to the complaint. When the clock showed her 23 minutes late, she called the police, according to the file.

He gave a description, noting that Harrington was 3 feet 6 inches tall, 50 pounds, and had 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 snap down the front, but no visible buttons, according to the complaint.

The details were unusual for two reasons, prosecutors argued: the girl never made it to the Bible camp, so they would not have seen her there; and the shorts were unique, handmade by the girl’s mother.

On October 14, 1975, Harrington’s remains were discovered at a state park in nearby Edgmont Township, prosecutors said in the complaint. She was wearing blue jean shorts, they said.

The cause and manner of death was homicide by at least two blows to the head, according to the complaint.

Harrington survivors said in a statement that they are grateful to police and prosecutors for the arrest. «Gretchen’s kidnapping and murder has forever altered our family and we miss her every day,» the family said.

Marple Township Police Chief Graeff Brandon said Harrington’s time on Earth was «an unfulfilled life… due to sheer evil and depravity.»

He said during Monday’s news conference that his murder represented a change in the timeline for a suburb that had once felt relatively innocent and crime-free.

«He transformed this community,» the chief said. «It was Anytown, USA.»

Prosecutors said Zandstra left the church and moved away from the area, settling first in Plano, Texas, and then Georgia, where he was held at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center Monday for a sixth day without bail, according to prosecutors and inmate records.

Authorities have expressed concern that there may be more victims in the communities where he has lived, and asked that anyone with pertinent information about the suspect come forward. State police were in the process of matching his DNA to other cold or open cases, the prosecutor’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’s case is closed.

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

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