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Former Pastor Charged in 1975 Murder of 8-Year-Old Who Was Last Seen Alive Heading to Bible Camp

“David Zandstra is... a monster,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said of the man accused of killing 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington. “He is every parent’s worst nightmare."

By Grace Jidoun
How To Stay Safe From Kidnapping

A young girl’s diary entry from 1975 and a haunting memory from a childhood sleepover helped lead to the arrest of a former pastor for the murder and kidnapping of another little girl.

David Zandstra, 83, has been charged in the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington, who was last seen alive setting out for bible camp on foot from her home in Marple Township, Pennsylvania 48 years ago, the state's Delaware County District Attorney’s Office announced Monday.

He's been charged with criminal homicide; murder of the first, second, and third degree; kidnapping of a minor; and possessing an instrument of crime.

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“David Zandstra is... a monster,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said during a press conference announcing the charges Monday afternoon. “He is every parent’s worst nightmare."

In a statement, Stollsteimer added, “Gretchen’s murder created a ‘before’ time and an ‘after’ time for an entire community — and for an entire county. This heinous act left a family and a community forever changed."

A mugshot of Daniel Zandstra and a photo of Gretchen Harrington

Stollsteimer said that Zandstra has admitted to the crimes, stating, "Justice has been a long time coming, but we are proud and grateful to finally be able to give the community an answer."

On the morning of August 15, 1975, Gretchen left her home on 27 Lawrence Road in Marple Township at approximately 9:30 a.m. to walk to her summer bible camp. The camp took place at two churches situated on the same property. Zandstra was the pastor of one of the churches, Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, from 1969 to 1976, and Gretchen’s father served as pastor at the second, the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

The children enrolled in the camp started the day with activities led by Zandstra at Trinity, who then transported the children in either a Volkswagen bus or his own green Rambler station wagon to the second church, according to the district attorney's office.

When Gretchen never showed up at Reformed church that day, her father asked Zandstra to call the police, according to an affidavit of probable cause for Zandstra’s arrest obtained by The Delaware County Daily Times.

According to the affidavit, neighbors reported seeing Gretchen speaking with the driver of either a green station wagon or a two-tone Cadillac that morning.

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Zandstra was questioned at the time, but the then-pastor denied ever seeing Gretchen on the date of her abduction.

Just under two months after she was last seen alive, skeletal remains were discovered in nearby Ridley Creek State Park on October 14, 1975. They were later identified as Gretchen's.

An autopsy on the girl's remains found that the manner of death was homicide and the cause was cranial cerebral injuries. Multiple pieces of Gretchen's clothing were also found but the case went cold for decades.

On January 2 of this year — more than 47 years after Gretchen’s murder — police interviewed a close friend of Zandstra’s daughter who went to sleepovers at his house in the 1970s. She told them that she woke up during one such sleepover to find Zandstra groping her groin area when she was 10 years old. When she confided in Zandstra’s daughter about what happened, the daughter replied that he did that sometimes, according to the district attorney's office. 

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This individual also recalled that a child in her class was nearly kidnapped twice, and in her diary from 1975, she had written that she suspected Zandstra was probably behind this.

Armed with this new info, police met with Zandstra in Marietta, Georgia, where he lives now, on July 17 of this year.

At first, he denied being involved with Gretchen's disappearance, but after being told of their interview with the woman who alleged sexual misconduct, Zandstra ultimately admitted to seeing Gretchen walking alone along Lawrence Road the morning she went missing, according to the district attorney's office. 

He allegedly admitted that he was driving a green station wagon that day, as several witnesses have stated. Zandstra also admitted to offering Gretchen a lift and taking her to a wooded area, the district attorney's office stated. Zandstra allegedly told authorities he parked his car and instructed the girl to take off her clothes. When she wouldn't do so, he used his fist to hit her head, according to the DA's office.

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Zandstra allegedly told investigators that Gretchen was bleeding at this point, and he thought she was dead, so he tried to cover her body up and left her in the wooded area.

“Justice does not have an expiration date," Lieutenant Jonathan Sunderlin of the Pennsylvania State Police said in a statement Monday. "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."

A DNA sample was collected from Zandstra to be submitted to the Combined DNA Index System (Codis) so it can be compared to DNA collected in cold cases in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

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