8-Year-Old Girl’s Cold Case Leads to Minister’s Arrest

Gretchen Harrington, then eight years old, set out for summer Bible school in Broomall, Pennsylvania, on the morning of August 15, 1975. Gretchen never made it to the Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church, despite the fact that it was less than half a mile away. Gretchen’s bones were discovered on October 14th, 1975, in the area now known as Ridley Creek State Park.

Her homicidal death was determined to have been brought about by blows to the head. However, her killer was unknown for decades. The Delaware County, Pennsylvania, district attorney’s office stated Monday that David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Georgia, had been charged with Gretchen’s murder. Delaware County is located west of Philadelphia.

Mr. Zandstra, who served as a preacher at the church in the 1970s, was arrested and charged with first-, second-, and third-degree murder as well as criminal homicide. Mr. Zandstra was reportedly arrested on July 17 in Georgia. He has been denied bail and is currently being jailed in Cobb County, Georgia.

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At a press conference on Monday, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced that his office was seeking a governor’s warrant to extradite Mr. Zandstra to Delaware County after learning that he was fighting extradition to Pennsylvania. “We’re going to try him, we’re going to convict him and he’s going to die in jail,” Mr. Stollsteimer said.

“And then he’s going to have to find out what the God he professes to believe in holds for those who are this evil to our children.”

Broomall finally feels like it can move on after nearly 48 years of being haunted by Gretchen’s kidnapping and murder, thanks to the accusations filed against Mr. Zandstra. At a press conference, Marple Township Police Chief Brandon Graeff, whose jurisdiction includes Broomall, claimed that Gretchen’s death had “transformed this community.”

Pre-August 1975, it was Any Town, U.S.A.,” he said. “Post- that day, it changed everything for the kids, for the parents, for the families, for everybody because nobody could do anything anymore in the innocence that they used to do it before this happened.”

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Gretchen’s family said in a statement on Monday that they were “extremely hopeful that the person who is responsible for the heinous crime that was committed against our Gretchen will be held accountable.” “It’s difficult to express the emotions that we are feeling as we take one step closer to justice,” the family said.

“The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day.” Mr. Zandstra’s legal representation status was unknown. Margaret Zandstra, his wife, did not react right away on Monday to a request for comment.

Mr. Zandstra is listed as a retired pastor on the Christian Reformed Church website, where it is also stated that he was ordained on September 20, 1965. Between 1965 and 2005, Mr. Zandstra served churches in New Jersey, California, and Texas in addition to Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church in Broomall.

On Monday, the Christian Reformed Church issued a statement saying it wants to “extend our condolences to the family of Gretchen Harrington.” “We are additionally grieved to hear that a C.R.C. pastor has been arrested for her murder,” the church said.

“We recognize that we live in a broken and sinful world where violence can happen anywhere by anyone — even within our churches and by leaders we hold to the highest standards.” The DNA sample acquired from Mr. Zandstra, according to the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, will be compared to samples from other open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country.

“We are concerned that there may be more victims who might have been s*xually assaulted by this man,” Mr. Stollsteimer said. “We want to hold him accountable for everything he did.”

8-Year-Old Girl's Cold Case Leads to Minister's Arrest (1)

‘I Think it was Mr. Z’

On August 15, 1975, at 9:30 a.m., Gretchen was supposed to have arrived to Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church, as stated in a criminal complaint filed by the police. Harold Harrington, Gretchen’s father and the minister at the church, noticed that she wasn’t there at 11 a.m. and reported her missing to the Marple Township Police.

The police interviewed numerous witnesses in the weeks that followed Gretchen’s disappearance. Mr. Zandstra was interviewed twice: once on August 19 and again on October 30. According to the lawsuit, he claimed to have picked up several kids and drove them to church on the day Gretchen disappeared, but he denied seeing her that day.

The investigation into Gretchen’s murder became cold as authorities found no new information that could shed light on the killer. Then, in January of this year, detectives spoke with a woman as “CI #1” in the complaint who indicated she knew Gretchen and Zoey Harrington from high school.

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The woman informed police on January 2 that she was close friends with Mr. Zandstra’s daughters and that she frequently spent the night at their house. The woman reported to the authorities that Mr. Zandstra had awakened her twice during sleepovers by stroking her groin.

According to the complaint, the woman eventually told her parents, and the Zandstras soon after relocated to Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. The woman was examined by police and during that time she gave them a diary she had kept as a young kid. She wrote on September 15, 1975: “Guess what? Two separate attempts were made by a man to abduct Holly, a girl in her class.”

I can’t say anything, but I have a suspicion that he abducted Gretchen. She referred to Mr. Zandstra by his initials, “Mr. Z,” in her note. Thanks to the interview and the entry in his diary, police were able to locate Mr. Zandstra in Marietta, Georgia (just north of Atlanta).

On July 17, detectives met with Mr. Zandstra at the Marietta, Georgia, headquarters of the Cobb County Police Department. According to the police report, Mr. Zandstra initially denied seeing Gretchen on the day she disappeared. He supposedly admitted his guilt in the end, though.

He told the authorities that he picked up Gretchen as she was walking to church that morning in his green A.M.C. Rambler station wagon. But Mr. Zandstra told detectives that instead of taking her to church, he drove her to a nearby wooded area, parked the car, and then urged Gretchen to remove her clothes, and she refused.

According to the police report, he admitted to having ejaculated in the car while Gretchen was present. Mr. Zandstra claimed that after that, he punched Gretchen in the head, causing her to bleed profusely.

As soon as Mr. Zandstra saw that Gretchen appeared to be dead, he “attempted to cover up her half-naked body with sticks and then he left the area,” according to the lawsuit. “He murdered, with his bare hands, this poor young girl and then lied about it for 48 years,” Mr. Stollsteimer said at the news conference on Monday.

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