For nearly half of a century, police investigators in a south-eastern Pennsylvania community had struggled to figure out who had taken eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington into the woods, struck her in the head and killed her.
All signs now indicate it was the Christian pastor in charge of the Bible camp to which Harrington was heading in 1975 when some of her loved ones last saw her alive, authorities alleged in a bombshell news conference this week.
David Zandstra, 83, faces charges of murder and kidnapping after his recent arrest in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta in connection with Harrington’s death, the district attorney of Delaware county, Jack Stollsteimer, told reporters at the briefing. He has purportedly confessed to the slaying, prompting Stollsteimer to call him “a monster” who inflicted “every parent’s worst nightmare” on Harrington’s family.
“This is a man who is a remorseless child predator who acted as if he was a friend, a neighbor, and a man of God, and he killed this poor little girl,” Stollsteimer said. The DA added that, until his arrest, Zandstra “acted if he was a [Harrington] family friend, not only during her burial and the period after that but for years”.
Notably, authorities also said they were comparing Zandstra’s DNA to evidence collected from open cases in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They have said that Zandstra also lived not only in Georgia but also Texas, and they want to establish whether Harrington was his only apparent victim.
Information from the Christian Reformed church notes that Zandstra worked in New Jersey and California, too, before his retirement in 2005.
Harrington, whose father was a Presbyterian minister, had started walking from her home in Marple Township to a Bible camp being run out of Zandstra’s Trinity Church Chapel in the middle of August 1975.
She did not make it to the camp, and within two days a jogger found her body in Ridley Creek state park in Media, where the Delaware county government is headquartered.
Police now suspect that Zandstra spotted Harrington walking alone and offered her a ride, taking advantage of the fact that her sisters couldn’t accompany her because of a recent birth in the family. Harrington accepted because one of her best friends was Zandstra’s daughter.
Ultimately, Stollsteimer alleged, Zandstra led Harrington to some local woods, dealt her a fatal blow to the head, and – understanding that she was dead – tried to hide her body.
Zandstra reported to his church’s Bible camp as if nothing had happened. Then, when Harrington’s father called the Bible camp asking if anyone there knew where she was, Zandstra was the one who reported her disappearance to police, Stollsteimer said.
According to reporting in the Philadelphia Inquirer, hundreds of people searched woods and fields in the area looking for signs of Harrington. People aiding in the search passed out more than 2,000 leaflets and operated a 24-hour hotline, which received hundreds of calls.
The efforts concluded with the discovery of Harrington’s body near a pile of her clothes, which was neatly folded. Her underwear had also been left hanging “like a flag … as if to call attention” to the location of the girl’s corpse, the Inquirer reported at the time.
Zandstra was arrested after investigators received what Stollsteimer described as new information from a friend of Harrington, who was not immediately identified to the public. The information prompted investigators to travel to Zandstra’s current home in Georgia and interview him about Harrington’s death.
Eugene Tray of the Pennsylvania state police alleged that Zandstra confessed to murder, acting “relieved” and like “a weight [was taken] off his shoulders” as he was arrested. Nonetheless, Zandstra is fighting his transfer out of Georgia, though Stollsteimer said he had no reason to doubt that the suspect would eventually be brought to Pennsylvania to be prosecuted.
An attorney for Zandstra in Pennsylvania did not immediately address the allegations against his client.
Under Pennsylvania law, Zandstra could face either the death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted of murder.
Harrington’s family asked for privacy after Zandstra’s arrest but issued a statement that they were “extremely hopeful” that they would attain justice.
The statement also said: “If you met Gretchen, you were instantly her friend. She exuded kindness to all and was sweet and gentle. Even now, when people share their memories of her, the first thing they talk about is how amazing she was and still is.
“At just eight years old, she had a lifelong impact on those around her.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jul/26/gretchen-harrington-murder-david-zandstra-pennsylvania US pastor arrested for killing of eight-year-old girl unsolved for half a century | US crime