A retired minister from Georgia has been charged with the nearly fifty-year-old homicide of an eight-year-old girl whose remains were discovered in southeastern Pennsylvania.
David Zandstra, 83, of the Atlanta suburb of Marietta is charged with criminal homicide, first-, second-, and third-degree murder, kidnapping of a minor, and a count related to the 1975 death of Gretchen Harrington in Delaware County.
On Monday in the Delaware County seat of Media, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer told reporters that the defendant was “a monster” and “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Stollsteimer declared, “This man is a remorseless child predator who posed as a friend, neighbor, and man of God, and he murdered this poor little girl.”
After murdering a child who knew and trusted him, he “acted as if he was their family friend not only during her burial, but for years,” according to the district attorney.
Harrington vanished in the middle of August 1975 while walking from her home in Marple Township to Bible camp at Trinity Church Chapel, where Zandstra served as pastor. Harrington was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Two months later, a cyclist discovered her corpse in Media’s Ridley Creek State Park.
Stollsteimer alleged that Zandstra, who was also the father of one of Harrington’s closest friends, offered her a transport. Harrington was typically accompanied by her sisters but was alone that day due to a recent birth in her family.
“When he offered her a ride in his car, she naturally accepted,” he said.
According to authorities, Zandstra lured her to a wooded area, struck her in the head, and, believing she was deceased, attempted to conceal her corpse. Stollsteimer alleged that upon returning to his church, Zandstra “attempted to act as if nothing had happened,” and when her father, the pastor of the nearby Reformed Presbyterian Church, called seeking to locate her, it was Zandstra who called the police.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in the days that followed, hundreds of people scoured nearby wooded areas and authorities distributed more than 2,000 leaflets and established a 24-hour hotline that received hundreds of calls. The Inquirer reported that when the girl’s body was discovered in mid-October 1975, her clothing was “folded and in a neat pile” near her body, and her undergarments were suspended from a tree limb “like a flag… to draw attention to the location.”
Stollsteimer stated that new information from an unidentified associate of the victim prompted state police to travel to Georgia and interview Zandstra, who allegedly confessed to committing the crime during the interview.
Defendant’s ‘Relieved’ Disposition Amid Extradition Resistance – Trooper’s Testimony
Trooper Eugene Tray described the defendant’s disposition as “relieved,” as if “a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.” Stollsteimer stated that Zandstra was resisting extradition from Georgia, despite the prosecutor’s assurance that he would be returned to Pennsylvania to face justice.
Authorities have stated that the suspect’s DNA will be compared to samples from open cases in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They stated that Zandstra resided in Texas and Georgia after departing the Commonwealth. Prior to his retirement in 2005, he served as a minister in New Jersey, California, and Texas, according to the Christian Reformed Church. Authorities expressed concern that additional victims may have been involved and implored anyone with information to contact investigators.
The attorney listed as representing Zandstra in Pennsylvania was left a message on Monday. Zandstra remained in custody in Georgia.
Gretchen Harrington’s family requested privacy but stated in a statement that they were “extremely hopeful” that the perpetrator would be held accountable for her abduction, which they said “permanently changed our family and ourselves. We miss her every day.”
“If you met Gretchen, you were her friend immediately. “She exuded kindness and was sweet and gentle with everyone,” her family said. “Even now, when people share their memories of her, the first thing they mention is how incredible she was and still is… at the age of eight, she had a lifelong impact on those around her.”