Gretchen Harrington, age 8, was abducted and killed one morning in August 1975 as she walked to Bible camp in Pennsylvania, according to a retired pastor from Georgia who made the confession.
According to the Delaware County District Attorney’s office, David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Georgia, was accused of criminal homicide, murder in the first, second, and third degrees, kidnapping, and possessing a weapon used in a crime.
“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,” District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in a Monday statement. “Gretchen’s murder created a ‘before’ time and an ‘after’ time for an entire community – and for an entire county. This heinous act left a family and a community forever changed.”
Zandstra, a husband and father of three, admitted to the crime after almost 50 years, according to Stollsteimer.
“Justice has been a long time coming, but we are proud and grateful to finally be able to give the community an answer,” Stollsteimer said.
On the morning of August 15, 1975, Gretchen was travelling along Lawrence Road in Marple, Pennsylvania, on her way to summer Bible camp. The camp was held at The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Marple and Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reformed Church, two nearby churches. Each day of camp began at Trinity for the campers.
The DA’s office stated that Zandstra, who was serving as a pastor at Trinity at the time, was in charge of assisting in the transportation of campers from Trinity to Reformed in either a blue and white Volkswagen bus or in his green Rambler station waggon.
When Gretchen failed to arrive at the church from Trinity that morning, Gretchen’s father, who serves as a pastor at Reformed, voiced worry about her whereabouts. That day, when word of the 8-year-old’s apparent disappearance circulated across the camp, Zandstra made a missing person call to the Marple Police Department.
Two months later, at the Ridley Creek State Park, the girl’s bones were found.
On August 15, a witness claimed to have seen Zandstra conversing with Gretchen from a green station waggon. After the victim’s remains were found and Zandstra was questioned by authorities in October, he claimed not to have seen her that day.
A criminal complaint against the defendant names Zandstra’s daughter’s best friend, who earlier this year informed investigators that she awoke to find Zandstra touching her while she was sleeping over the defendant’s house as a ten-year-old.
The defendant’s daughter responded that the defendant did that occasionally when the girl explained what had occurred to her, the district attorney’s office stated in a press release.
The informant also mentioned how a student in her class had nearly been abducted twice and provided detectives a diary entry from 1975 in which she expressed her suspicion that Zandstra was responsible for the attempted kidnappings.
On July 17, investigators made contact with the defendant in Georgia. Zandstra first denied being involved with the case, but after being presented with evidence, including testimonies from his daughter’s best friend, he eventually admitted to the crime.
The 83-year-old retired pastor acknowledged seeing Gretchen walking on the morning of her abduction and volunteered to take her to a nearby forested area in his green station waggon. He claimed to have stopped the vehicle and urged the female to take off her clothes. He allegedly smacked her in the head when she refused, thinking she had passed away. The DA’s office claims that he then made an attempt to conceal her body before fleeing the area.
On the same day that they questioned Zandstra, the authorities also created an arrest warrant and a complaint. A court in Cobb County, Georgia, refused to grant the suspect bail.
Zandstra’s DNA was taken by investigators so that it could be compared to evidence from unsolved cold cases in Pennsylvania.
“The Commonwealth can have confidence that law enforcement will not rest until justice is served,” Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Jonathan Sunderlin said in a Monday statement. “This case has been investigated by generations of detectives, and they all are owed a debt of gratitude for never giving up.”
The Marple Police Department, according to Stollsteimer, “never gave up hope that Gretchen’s killer would be identified and they should be recognised for their tenacious pursuit of justice,” as well.