Retired pastor confesses to killing fellow pastor’s 8-year-old daughter nearly 50 years ago

Former pastor David Zandstra, 83, (L) admitted to the murder of Gretchen Harrington (R) in 1975. | Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

David Zandstra, an 83-year-old retired pastor living in Marietta, Georgia, has confessed to kidnapping and killing a fellow pastor’s 8-year-old daughter, Gretchen Harrington, nearly 50 years ago as she walked to summer Bible camp, Delaware County District Attorney in Pennsylvania Jack Stollsteimer announced. 

“The murder of Gretchen Harrington has haunted members of law enforcement since that terrible day in August 1975. The families of victims often say that their lives are forever altered into the ‘before’ time and the ‘after’ time. Gretchen’s murder created a ‘before’ time and an ‘after’ time for an entire community — and for an entire county,” Stollsteimer said in a press statement Monday.

“This heinous act left a family and a community forever changed. At long last I can announce today that her killer — David Zandstra — has admitted to his crime. Justice has been a long time coming, but we are proud and grateful to finally be able to give the community an answer.”

Zandstra was charged with criminal homicide, murder of the first, second and third degree, kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime, Stollsteimer said.

At the time of the murder, Zandstra was pastor at Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church located at 140 Lawrence Road in Marple, Pennsylvania. Gretchen’s father was the pastor at The Reformed Presbyterian Church located at 144 Lawrence Road in Marple.

Gretchen’s father raised an alarm when his daughter failed to show up for a camp session at the Trinity Church property. Zandstra contacted the Marple Police Department at 11:23 a.m. that day to report Gretchen missing. About a month later, on Oct. 14, 1975, Gretchen’s skeletal remains were found in Ridley Creek State Park.

Among his roles at the camp, Zandstra was partly responsible for shuttling the campers between the two church properties. He was noted to use either a white or blue Volkswagen bus or his green Rambler station wagon.

Investigators said a witness reported during the initial investigation that they saw Gretchen talking with the driver of either a green station wagon or a two-tone Cadillac, but Zandstra denied seeing the girl on the day she disappeared.

A crack in the case eventually came on Jan. 2, when an individual only mentioned as CI#1 in a complaint, who was best friends with Zandstra’s daughter, alleged he would grope her in the groin area during sleepovers when she was 10.

When CI#1 told Zandstra’s daughter what happened, she acknowledged that her father did that sometimes. She further recalled that she had written in her diary in 1975 that another child from her class was almost kidnapped twice, and she believed Zandstra was likely the culprit.

Investigators found Zandstra in Marietta and confronted him with the sexual misconduct allegations on July 17. After initially denying his crimes, police say Zandstra admitted to killing Harrington.

“He admitted to offering Gretchen a ride and taking her to a nearby wooded area. The defendant stated that he had parked the car and asked the victim to remove her clothing. 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,” the release said.

Lieutenant Jonathan Sunderlin of the Pennsylvania State Police praised the generations of investigators that refused to give up on solving the murder.

“Justice does not have an expiration date. Whether a crime happened 50 years ago or five minutes ago, the residents of the Commonwealth can have confidence that law enforcement will not rest until justice is served,” he said. “This case has been investigated by generations of detectives, and they all are owed a debt of gratitude for never giving up.”

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