David Zandstra, an 83-year-old former pastor, has been arrested and charged with the 1975 kidnapping and murder of an 8-year-old girl, Gretchen Harrington, according to Pennsylvania authorities. Zandstra, who was apprehended on July 17 in Cobb County, Georgia, confessed to the crime, which took place when he was serving as a pastor in Marple Township, Pennsylvania, nearly half a century ago.
The breakthrough in the cold case came after new evidence surfaced earlier this year. A confidential informant, a 10-year-old girl in 1975, provided investigators with crucial information from an interview and a diary entry she wrote at the time. This led to Zandstra’s confession.
Zandstra is facing charges of criminal homicide, murder, kidnapping of a minor, and possession of an instrument of crime. “Justice has been a long time coming, but we are proud and grateful to finally be able to give the community an answer,” said Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.
Pennsylvania State Police Lieutenant Jonathan Sunderlin stated, “Justice does not have an expiration date. 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 case has deeply affected the Marple Township community and law enforcement since Gretchen’s disappearance. The young girl was last seen walking to a summer Bible camp on August 15, 1975. The camp was held at two churches, one where Zandstra served as a pastor and the other where Gretchen’s father was a pastor. When Gretchen failed to show up at his church, her father grew worried. It was Zandstra who reported Gretchen’s disappearance to the police.
Investigators found inconsistencies in Zandstra’s initial statements and questioned his detailed knowledge of Gretchen’s clothing on the day she disappeared, despite her not arriving at the camp. Zandstra denied any knowledge of Gretchen’s disappearance at the time. Two months later, Gretchen’s skeletal remains were discovered in Ridley Creek State Park. The cause of death was homicide, with the medical examiner reporting that Gretchen had suffered “two or more blunt impacts to the skull.”
The case remained unsolved for nearly five decades until a woman, who was friends with Zandstra’s daughter in the 1970s, came forward with her diary entries, leading to a significant breakthrough in the case.
The informant’s diary contained an entry about an attempted kidnapping and inappropriate touching by Zandstra during a sleepover at his home. When she told Zandstra’s daughter about the incident, the daughter responded that her father “did that sometimes.”
Zandstra, now residing in Marietta, Georgia, was confronted with the new evidence last month. He confessed to offering Gretchen a ride to the summer camp on the day of her disappearance. He admitted to driving her to a wooded area, attempting to undress her, and when she resisted, he punched her in the head, leaving her bleeding and presumed dead.
A DNA sample has been collected from Zandstra to compare with DNA from other open cases across the state and country. Zandstra moved from Pennsylvania after Gretchen’s disappearance and lived in Plano, Texas, and Marietta, Georgia. Pennsylvania State Police are urging anyone with relevant information about Zandstra to come forward. Zandstra is currently in a Cobb County, Georgia jail where he was denied bond.