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A former pastor is charged with murdering an 8-year-old girl nearly 50 years ago

Gretchen Harrington (left) disappeared on Aug. 15, 1975, as she was walking to summer bible camp in a Philadelphia suburb. Former pastor David Zandstra (right), 83, has been charged with her murder.
Delaware County District Attorney's Office
Gretchen Harrington (left) disappeared on Aug. 15, 1975, as she was walking to summer bible camp in a Philadelphia suburb. Former pastor David Zandstra (right), 83, has been charged with her murder.

On the morning of Aug. 15, 1975, Gretchen Harrington, 8, left her home in Marple Township, Penn., to walk to summer bible camp and disappeared.

About two months later, her skeletal remains were found in nearby Ridley Creek State Park, but the crime went unsolved. Now, police believe they finally know who killed her.

The Delaware County District Attorney's Office announced on Monday that it had arrested former pastor David Zandstra, 83, for Harrington's murder.

Zandstra admitted to killing Harrington and is currently being held in jail in Cobb County, Ga., according to authorities.

"We are gonna bring him here to Delaware County. We're gonna try him. We're gonna convict him. And he's gonna die in jail," District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said at a press conference on Monday.

"Then he's gonna have to find out what the God he professes to believe in holds for those who are this evil to our children," Stollsteimer added.

Zandstra has been charged with criminal homicide, first-degree murder, second-degree murder, third-degree murder, kidnapping of a minor and possession of an instrument of crime.

A newspaper clipping from 1975 describes the search for Gretchen Harrington.
/ Delaware County District Attorney's Office
/
Delaware County District Attorney's Office
A newspaper clipping from 1975 describes the search for Gretchen Harrington.

The killing nearly 48 years ago stumped investigators for decades and cast a pall over the small-town community in suburban Philadelphia.

In a statement, the Harrington family thanked law enforcement officials for their continued work on the case and said they were hopeful that the person responsible for Gretchen's murder would be held accountable.

"If you met Gretchen, you were instantly her friend. She exuded kindness to all and was sweet and gentle. Even now, when people share their memories of her, the first thing they talk about is how amazing she was and still is...at just 8 years old, she had a lifelong impact on those around her," the family said.

"The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day."

A breakthrough in the case came from a witness

In January of this year, investigators said they interviewed a source who was best friends with Zandstra's daughter and who would often sleep over at the family's home.

She told investigators that, during a sleepover when she was 10, she woke up to Zandstra groping her groin area. The source said she told Zandstra's daughter, who replied that her father sometimes did that.

The source also said she remembered that a girl in her class was nearly kidnapped twice and wrote in her diary in 1975 that she suspected Zandstra was the likely kidnapper.

The summer bible camp Harrington was attending took place on the grounds of two nearby churches. Harrington's father was the pastor of one church, and Zandstra was the pastor of the other.

Investigators say Zandstra was the pastor of Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, where some of the summer bible camp took place.
/ Delaware County District Attorney's Office
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Delaware County District Attorney's Office
Investigators say Zandstra was the pastor of Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, where some of the summer bible camp took place.

In July of this year, investigators traveled to Marietta, Ga. — where Zandstra now lives with his wife — to interview him.

At first Zandstra denied knowing what happened to Harrington, but investigators say he later admitted to offering her a ride and taking her to a nearby wooded area.

Zandstra said he asked Harrington to take off her clothes and she refused, and then he punched her in the head, causing her to bleed. He left her body in the woods and fled the scene.

Police also interviewed Zandstra in 1975, but the then-pastor denied seeing Harrington on the day she was abducted.

"Justice does not have an expiration date," Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Jonathan Sunderlin said in a statement. "Whether a crime happened fifty years ago or five minutes ago, the residents of the Commonwealth can have confidence that law enforcement will not rest until justice is served."

The investigation enters a new phase

Zandstra apparently refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania, so prosecutors must send a petition for requisition to Gov. Josh Shapiro, who will then forward it to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

If approved, authorities can transport Zandstra from Georgia to Pennsylvania, where he is expected to stand trial.

Stollsteimer also said authorities are concerned Zandstra may have sexually assaulted other victims. After Harrington's death, Zandstra moved to Plano, Texas, and later to Marietta, Ga.

Investigators took a DNA sample from Zandstra and will compare it to open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country, and they are asking anyone with additional information about Zandstra's activities to contact the Pennsylvania State Police.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]