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July 24, 2023

Retired minister charged in 1975 cold-case homicide of Delaware County girl

Gretchen Harrington, 8, went missing during a walk to Bible school in Marple Township. David Zandstra, now 83, is charged with her abduction and death

Investigations Cold Cases
Gretchen Harrington Case Source/Delaware County D.A.'s Office

Gretchen Harrison, 8, was kidnapped and killed in Marple Township, Delaware County in August 1975. Retired minister David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Georgia, is now charged with homicide and other offenses.

A retired minister has been charged in a decades-old cold case connected to the kidnapping and killing of Gretchen Harrington, an 8-year-old Delaware County girl who disappeared in the summer of 1975 while walking to a Bible school program.

Harrington went missing the morning of Aug. 15, 1975, as she walked from her home to a summer Bible program at Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church. David Zandstra was a reverend there and a friend of Harrington's father, who was a minister at another nearby Presbyterian congregation. The Bible school was in the Broomall section of Marple Township, less than a quarter mile away from the family's home, and children attending lessons would spend a portion of the day at each of the two churches.

The Delaware County District Attorney's office said on Monday that Zandstra abducted Gretchen in his car that morning, drove her to a remote area and tried to get her to take off her clothes. When Harrington resisted, Zandstra allegedly beat her to death and disposed of her body in Ridley Creek State Park. Zandstra returned to the church and worked with his wife to help Harrington's parents report her missing.

"This man is evil," Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said Monday afternoon. "He killed this poor 8-year-old girl he knew and who trusted him, and then he acted as if he was a family friend — not only during her burial and the period after that, but for years."

Zandstra, now 83, and living of Marietta, Georgia, is charged with homicide, kidnapping and related offenses.

On most mornings, Harrington's sisters would have joined her on the short walk to Bible school, but they had remained at home after their mother gave birth to another child, prosecutors said. Harrington left home at 9 a.m.. By 11 a.m., Harrington's parents called Zandstra's church after learning their daughter never made it to class. 

Marple Township police and community volunteers began an intensive search for Harrington. In the days and weeks that followed, authorities distributed leaflets and missing person posters. Pennsylvania State Police flew a helicopter over the town during the initial search — a moment vividly remembered by many in the community, authorities said — and went on to lead the subsequent death investigation. 

Harrington's skeletal remains were found by a jogger at Ridley Creek State Park on Oct. 14, 1975. She had been taken several miles from her home, and at the scene, authorities found various items of Harrington's clothing. The beating she suffered left her skull fractured, investigators said. 

Online records show 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, in later years, before his retirement in Georgia in 2005.

Zandstra answered questions about the case in 1975 and investigators had looked into his background, but charges were never filed against him, according to information in a criminal complaint.  

David Zandstra MugshotSource/Delaware County D.A.'s Office

David Zandstra, 83

Earlier this year, detectives identified Zandstra as a suspect with the help of a witness, who knew Gretchen and other members of the Harrington and Zandstra families. The witness said she stayed over at the Zandstra family's home when she was 10 years old and that Zandstra allegedly touched her groin while she slept. The witness was forbidden from staying at the Zandstra home after she told her family what happened, and the Zandstra family moved to Texas after the incident, according to the criminal complaint. 

The witness also shared her diary entries dated from around the time of Harrington's disappearance, police said. In one entry, the witness had written that another girl she knew was nearly kidnapped twice and that she thought Zandstra was responsible. 

"I can't tell anyone, but I think he might be the one who kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z," a diary entry dated Sept. 15, 1975, reads.

Pennsylvania State Police visited Zandstra last week at the Cobb County Police Department in Georgia to interview him about the Harrington case. Zandstra allegedly confessed to abducting and killing her. 

"He admitted to everything we have said here today," Stollsteimer said. "He murdered, with his bare hands, this poor young girl and then lied about it for 48 years."

Authorities say 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. Victims are encouraged to reach out to the Delaware County D.A.'s Office and state police. Investigators will also work with partners in other states to determine whether Zandstra is connected to other crimes. 

The cold case in Delaware County 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, who were 9 years old and lived in Marple Township at the time of Harrington's death.

"We definitely think it affected the town," Falcone Sullivan said during an interview last November on FOX29's "Good Day Philadelphia." "You can see on Facebook now, I think that's what prompted us to finally write this book ... people still talk about it and how it affected their lives and how they ended up being a lot more protective with their children than they would have (been)."

After Marple police granted the authors access to the Harrington case file, Falcone Sullivan and Mathis theorized that a person other than Zandstra was responsible for Harrington's abduction and death. That suspect was identified in the book as someone who had died in jail. The authors also spoke with surviving members of Harrington's family as part of their research. The family released a statement Monday sharing their relief over Zandstra's arrest and requesting privacy. 

"The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day," the family said. "We are grateful for the continual pursuit of justice by law enforcement and we want to thank the Pennsylvania State Police for never stopping in their constant search for answers."

Zandstra is now in prison in Georgia and is currently fighting extradition. The D.A.'s office plans to petition the governors of Pennsylvania and Georgia to arrange to have Zandstra brought to Delaware County and tried in court.

Stollsteimer said the case reinforces the commitment that investigators have had to obtain justice for Gretchen and others like her. 

"I think this is a signal, once again, about how we never give up in law enforcement," Stollsteimer said. "Everybody in our community is important to us, and when anybody is killed, it hurts all of us. We never rest. "