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September 28, 2023

Retired minister extradited to face charges in 1975 killing of Delaware County girl

David Zandstra, 83, of Georgia, allegedly abducted 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington and beat her to death. He is being held at George W. Hill Correctional Facility

Investigations Cold Cases
David Zandstra Delaware County Source/Delaware County D.A.'s Office

Gretchen Harrington, 8, was kidnapped and killed in Delaware County in the summer of 1975. Nearly five decades later, David Zandstra, 83, of Georgia, was charged with abducting her and beating her to death. Zandstra was a reverend at the Broomall church where Harrington attended summer Bible school.

A former Broomall minister accused of kidnapping and killing an 8-year-old girl nearly five decades ago has been extradited from Georgia to face charges in Delaware County.

David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, arrived at Media's state police barracks for his arraignment this afternoon, about two months after prosecutors charged him with fatally beating Gretchen Harrington. He was then transported to George W. Hill Correctional Facility. preliminary hearing will be scheduled soon.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer spoke outside of the Delaware County Courthouse on Thursday. He said investigators around the country are working to see if Zandstra was involved in any other unsolved cases, like the 1991 disappearance of 4-year-old Nikki Campbell in Fairfield, California. Authorities in Pennsylvania have previously said they are concerned that Zandstra may have sexually assaulted other children in Delaware County or in other congregations where he worked in the United States. 

Zandstra allegedly confessed to killing Harrington after investigators visited him in Georgia to present evidence that he sexually abused another girl just before Harrington went missing. A witness had told authorities that she was sexually abused by Zandstra when she was 10 years old, and that she had written in her diary about Harrington's disappearance and her suspicion that Zandstra was responsible. In July, Zandstra was charged with murder, kidnapping and possession of an instrument of crime.

Harrington was abducted on the morning of Aug. 15, 1975 as she walked from her home to a nearby summer Bible school at Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church. The church was less than a mile from her home. Zandstra was a reverend there.

Harrington's father, a minister at a nearby Presbyterian congregation, was a friend and colleague of Zandstra. The two ran the Bible school program together. During summer classes, students would spend time at both of their churches. Harrington never showed up at either church that day.

Prosecutors allege Zandstra saw Harrington walking and offered her a ride, but then drove her to a remote area of Ridley Creek State Park and attempted to sexually abuse her. When she resisted, Zandstra allegedly beat her head with a rock, killing her. He then dumped her body in the park and returned to the church to help her parents report her missing, prosecutors said.

The ensuing search for Harrington struck fear into the community in Broomall, which is part of Marple Township. Volunteers joined police to help find the girl, and Pennsylvania State Police flew a helicopter overhead. Harrington's skeletal remains were found by a jogger two months later.

Zandstra had been questioned by authorities at the time of Harrington's disappearance, but no charges were filed against him. The witness who came forward to police this year said she knew Gretchen and other members of the Harrington and Zandstra families.

The witness told investigators that she had stayed at Zandstra's house for sleepovers when she was a girl, and that Zandstra had touched her groin on two of those occasions, prosecutors said. When the witness told her family what happened, she was no longer allowed to go to the house. Zandstra and his family moved to Texas a short time later. 

A diary entry from the witness's journal, dated Sept. 15, 1975, said, "I can't tell anyone, but I think he might be the one who kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z."

As years went by without significant developments in the investigation, the cold case became the subject of the true crime book "Marple’s Gretchen Harrington Tragedy: Kidnapping, Murder and Innocence Lost in Suburban Philadelphia," written by journalists Joanna Falcone Sullivan and Mike Mathis. The authors had grown up in Marple Township at the time of Harrington's death and had reviewed the diary of the witness who assisted police. In the book, the authors theorized that another suspect — a man who died in jail — was behind Harrington's death.

Zandstra worked at Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church between 1969-1976. He then moved to a church in Dallas and went on to be a minister at churches in San Diego and Fairfield, California, before his retirement in Georgia in 2005.