83-year-old former pastor charged with 1975 murder of 8-year-old girl


Police have arrested an 83-year-old former pastor on murder charges nearly 50 years after he allegedly abducted and killed 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington in Pennsylvania, officials said Monday.

David Zandstra has been charged with criminal homicide, first, second and third degree murder, kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime. He was interviewed during the initial investigation in 1975, but it wasn't until a police interview this year that investigators were able to gather enough information for an arrest, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said.

Harrington left her Marple home around 9 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 15, 1975 for her summer bible camp, Stollsteimer said. The camp used the premises of both the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, where Zandstra was a pastor.

Zandstra would run opening exercises at Trinity and was one of the people responsible for bringing the kids from Trinity to Reformed, where Harrington's father worked as the pastor, officials said.

David Zandstra. (Office of the Delaware County District Attorney)
David Zandstra. (Office of the Delaware County District Attorney)

On the day of her disappearance, Harrington's father became worried when she didn't arrive at Reformed, and police were contacted by 11:23 a.m.

Harrington's skeletal remains were found two months later in Ridley Creek State Park, authorities said.

During the investigation, a witness told police they'd seen Harrington speaking with the driver of either a two-tone Cadillac or a green station wagon, the latter of which Zandstra was known to use. Police interviewed Zandstra in October of 1975, but he denied seeing Harrington on the day she'd disappeared.

On Jan. 2 of this year, investigators spoke with a woman who alleged Zandstra had abused her as a child. The alleged victim, who was not identified, was best friends with Zandstra's daughter and slept over at the home often, authorities said. She told police that during one sleepover when she was 10, she woke up to Zandstra groping her. She told Zandstra's daughter what had happened and the daughter "replied that the defendant did that sometimes," the district attorney's office said.

Investigators then met with Zandstra in Marietta, Georgia, where he currently lives, on July 17, officials said. At first, he denied his involvement in Harrington's disappearance, but after he was confronted with the evidence provided by the alleged groping victim, Zandstra admitted to seeing Harrington on the day she vanished.

He admitted that he was driving a green station wagon that day and said he'd offered Harrington a ride and taken her to a wooded area.

"The defendant stated that he had parked the car and asked the victim to remove her clothing," officials wrote in a news release. "When she refused, he struck her in the head with a fist. The victim was bleeding, and he believed her to be dead. He attempted to cover up her body and left the area."

Gretchen Harrington. (Office of the Delaware County District Attorney)
Gretchen Harrington. (Office of the Delaware County District Attorney)

Trooper Eugene Tray, who interviewed Zandstra, said the alleged killer seemed relieved.

"I don't know if he's sorry for what he did, but this is a weight off his shoulders for sure," Tray said.

Zandstra was taken into custody in Georgia, and he remains in jail in Cobb County without bail. He is fighting extradition and officials are working to get a governor's warrant to bring him to Pennsylvania.

"We're going to convict him," Stollsteimer said. He's going to die in jail 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."

Harrington's father has since died, but her mother and three sisters are still alive, officials said.

Officials are investigating if there could be other victims connected to Zandstra, who lived in Plano, Texas, and then in Marietta after Harrington's death.

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