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KERNS: Gretchen Harrington Confronted Evil and Died a Hero

An 8-year-old child in Broomall, Pa., in 1975 rarely needed to be brave. Generally, their routine never necessitated that they stray far from the family home. School, church, activities, and social events generally all took place within a few square miles.

Most families who took vacations piled the family into the station wagon for a week at the shore every summer. Some lucky ones splurged on the occasional trip to Disney World. Visiting relatives usually involved a car ride of less than 10 miles. We lived in suburban Philadelphia, but for most of us, the city was the place where our dads went to work, or we occasionally went to see the Phillies at Veteran’s Stadium. That insular environment provided safety and security, so confronting danger was a foreign concept.

To the extent danger existed, it happened in other places. The news was available on television….channels three, six or 10 on for an hour around dinner time and then another hour, well after we went to bed. Because most families did not permit television viewing during dinner, 8-year-olds rarely even watched the local news. We had two major newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Evening Bulletin. But at age eight, we only looked at our parents’ newspaper to read the funnies (our word for what the rest of the world called the comics page).

Children mostly learned about the news from overhearing their parents’ conversations. Most families had a phone in the kitchen and maybe the den. We would hear our parents on the telephone because the phone was attached to the wall; there was no privacy. We also overheard gossip standing outside our church on Sunday mornings, wanting desperately to get to the car but standing patiently in scratchy church clothes while the parents gossiped and chatted.

The sudden, unexplained disappearance of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington in August 1975 from Lawrence Road in Broomall seemed unreal to most people. The story – and the lack of details – spread quickly. I attended St. Plus X Grade School, located on Lawrence Road, near where Gretchen was last seen. I rode a yellow school bus because my family lived about two miles away. However, many of my classmates walked to school every day from first through eighth grade as Lawrence Road and many parish families populated the several streets adjacent to it.

Gretchen attended a different school, so I did not know her. But we all knew she had disappeared…and we knew it happened in broad daylight just down the street from our school, on a road most of us walked up and down more times than we could count.

How could a girl disappear without a trace from a road that was so safe that children traversed it daily to and from school? These were the days before minivans and car lines. If the bus did not deposit you at school, you walked. We heard our parents discuss the crime in worried tones. Families reminded the children, “Do not talk to strangers. Never go near someone else’s car.” No one knew what happened to Gretchen.

I never forgot about Gretchen, and I imagine the same is true for my former St. Plus X Grade School classmates. Most times I was on or near Lawrence Road over the years, I would think about her. The rest of us grew older, but her life abruptly ended, and no one knew why. I am sure I speak for most of my classmates that we never forgot about her.

Last year, some former residents of the area wrote a book about the mystery of Gretchen’s disappearance, still unsolved. While interested in the subject, I could never bring myself to read the book. I did not want to relive the terror of her disappearance or the unsettled feeling of not knowing who was responsible.

The recent announcement that police arrested a suspect in the case and that suspect confessed when confronted brought all of the memories of the summer of 1975 flooding to the forefront. We now had an answer. The perpetrator was not an outsider passing through our town who committed a crime of opportunity. A sociopathic monster lived among us – a local pastor known and trusted by Gretchen and her family. At the time, this monster called the police, involved himself in the search, and remained friends with Gretchen’s family.

This week, investigators revealed that the suspect admitted that he picked up Gretchen in his station wagon and took her to a nearby wooded area. There, he asked her to take off her clothes. And this is where Gretchen’s bravery came into play. She defied him. She knew it was wrong. She said no. He then admitted that he punched her so hard that she bled and left her for dead.

Law enforcement authorities announced they are now investigating whether this suspect abused other children. They are tracing his whereabouts throughout the years, along with other cold cases. Police reported the witness who ultimately led them to this suspect told police this year that when she was a young child, this suspect molested her when she was visiting his home about a week before Gretchen went missing. Imagine more victims will now come forward.

I have wondered about Gretchen and what happened to her all these years. Now I know that in her last moments, she exhibited bravery well beyond both her experience and her years. Growing up in an insulated small town where she was used to constantly being surrounded by those she knew and trusted, this little girl recognized evil instantly. She looked the Devil in the eye and said no. Gretchen died a hero.

This little girl leaves behind two important legacies. The first is the benefit of vigorous law enforcement. Despite the drumbeat from liberal activists to defund our police, Gretchen’s case demonstrates the benefits of a dedicated, effective police force prioritizing the rights of the victim over the criminal in pursuing justice, no matter how long it takes. The second is more personal. At the age of eight, Gretchen recognized evil and resisted. We should all be so brave.

As satisfying as it may be that Gretchen’s killer now faces justice, nothing replaces the loss of her life. The other 8-year-old children from my hometown grew up and continue to experience all life has to offer. Gretchen’s life abruptly ended that summer day, so she is forever frozen in time as an 8-year-old girl. Each day, all day, every one of us faces choices between right and wrong, between good and evil. We cannot bring Gretchen back, but we can honor her memory by following her lead. Be brave and do the right thing, whatever the cost. What an amazing legacy for an 8-year-old, small-town girl.

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Delco DA Announces Charges in Cold Case Murder

From a press release

District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced Monday that, nearly 50 years after the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington, charges have been brought against David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Georgia.

Zandstra has been charged with criminal homicide, murder of the first, second, and third degree, as well as kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime.

“The murder of Gretchen Harrington has haunted members of law enforcement since that terrible day in August 1975. Victims’ families often say that their lives are forever altered into the ‘before’ time and the ‘after’ time. 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. At long last, I can announce today that her killer – David Zandstra – has admitted to his crime. Justice has been a long time coming, but we are proud and grateful to finally be able to give the community an answer,” said Stollsteimer.

On the morning of August 15, 1975, Gretchen Harrington left her home on 27 Lawrence Road in Marple at approximately 9:30 a.m. to walk to her summer Bible camp. The camp utilized the premises of the Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church (“Trinity”) at 140 Lawrence Road, Marple, and the premises of The Reformed Presbyterian Church (“Reformed”) at 144 Lawrence Road, Marple. The defendant was the pastor of Trinity, and Gretchen’s father was the pastor of Reformed. The children started the day with opening exercises led by the defendant at Trinity and then were transported to the premises of Reformed at approximately 10 a.m.

The defendant was one of the individuals responsible for transporting the children from Trinity to Reformed, and he would do so in either a white and blue Volkswagen bus or in his green Rambler station wagon.

The victim’s father became concerned about his daughter’s whereabouts when she failed to appear at Reformed. Concern quickly spread through the camp, and at 11:23 a.m., the defendant contacted the Marple Police Department to report the victim’s disappearance.

Gretchen Harrington

On October 14, 1975, skeletal remains were located within the Ridley Creek State Park. The remains were subsequently identified as those of Gretchen Harrington.

A witness interviewed in connection with the initial investigation reported seeing the victim speaking with either a green station wagon driver or a two-tone Cadillac. The defendant was interviewed in October 1975. He denied seeing the victim on the date of her abduction.

On January 2, 2023, investigators interviewed an individual referred to in the complaint as CI (confidential informant) No.1. CI No.1 was best friends with the defendant’s daughter and would often attend sleepovers at the Zandstra’s house. CI#1 recalled that during a sleepover that occurred when she was 10 years old, she was awakened by the defendant groping her groin area. When CI#1 told the defendant’s daughter about what had happened, the defendant’s daughter replied that the defendant did that sometimes. CI#1 also recalled that a child in her class was nearly kidnapped twice. In her diary from 1975, CI#1 had made a notation that she believed at the time that the likely culprit was the defendant.

Investigators determined that the defendant now resides in Marietta, Ga. Contact was made with the Cobb County Police Department, and investigators traveled there to meet with the defendant on July 17, 2023. Although initially denying his involvement in Gretchen’s disappearance, after being confronted with the evidence provided by CI#1 of his sexual misconduct, the defendant admitted to seeing Gretchen walking alone along Lawrence Road on the morning of her disappearance. The defendant admitted that, as corroborated by multiple witnesses, he was driving a green station wagon on the day in question. He admitted to offering Gretchen a ride and taking her to a nearby wooded area. The defendant stated that he had parked the car and asked the victim to remove her clothing. When she refused, he struck her in the head with a fist. The victim was bleeding, and he believed her to be dead. He attempted to cover up her body and left the area.

“Justice does not have an expiration date. Whether a crime happened fifty years ago or five minutes ago, the residents of the Commonwealth can have confidence that law enforcement will not rest until justice is served,” said Lieutenant Jonathan Sunderlin of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). He continued, “This case has been investigated by generations of detectives, and they all are owed a debt of gratitude for never giving up. Particular recognition is due today to Corporal Andrew J. Martin of the Criminal Investigation Assessment Unit, Missing Persons Unit, Troop K. His determination to build upon the work of his predecessors, and his belief that the case could still be solved, have been instrumental in getting us to today’s announcement.”

“Numerous law enforcement agencies have been involved in this case over the years, and we must also recognize the work and dedication of the Marple Police Department, particularly Chief Brandon Graeff. Like the state police, they never gave up hope that Gretchen’s killer would be identified, and they should be recognized for their tenacious pursuit of justice,” said Stollsteimer. “We also want to thank the members of the Cobb County Police Department for their assistance with this case. Their professionalism and cooperation were much appreciated. I also want to acknowledge and thank Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Wills and Deputy District Attorney Geoff Paine, both of whom have contributed to ensuring that justice is secured for Gretchen and her family,” said Stollsteimer.

The Harrington family issued this statement: “With today’s announcement of an arrest, we are 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. Gretchen was only 8 years old when she was suddenly taken away from us on her way to church on Friday, August 15, 1975. 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 8 years old, she had a lifelong impact on those around her. The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family, and we miss her every single day. 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. We would not be here today if it was not for them. As a family, we ask for privacy at this time as we continue to digest this information. Thank you for your understanding, love, and continued support. It means the world to us.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also weighed in.

“Today’s announcement is a testament to the power of perseverance and a family and community’s commitment to justice,” said Michelle DeLaune, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing &  Exploited Children. “Regardless of how much time has passed, we know answers can be found. As we mark this achievement, we applaud the incredible efforts of the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Marple Township Police, and their partner law enforcement agencies for their unwavering dedication in this case. Days like today fuel our ongoing passion to protect children, and we’re keeping Gretchen’s family in our thoughts, as well as the many other families out there who are still searching for answers.”

An arrest warrant and criminal complaint were filed in Delaware County on July 17, 2023. At that time, Zandstra was taken into custody in Georgia. He was denied bail and remains in jail in Cobb County, Ga. The defendant refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania. The District Attorney’s office will be submitting a petition for requisition, which will be sent to Gov. Josh Shapiro for his approval. Once approved, it will be forwarded to the governor of Georgia, and arrangements will be made to have representatives from the Delaware County Sheriff’s office pick up the defendant and bring him to Pennsylvania.

A DNA sample was collected from the defendant and will be submitted to the Combined DNA Index System (Codis) so it can be compared to DNA collected in open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country. Following his residence in Pennsylvania, Zandstra lived in Plano, Texas, and Marietta, Ga. area. Anyone with additional information about Zandstra’s activities, when he was living in Texas or in Georgia, is asked to call the Pennsylvania State Police.

‘Incredible Investigative Work’: Bucks DA Solves 40-year Cold Case

“It isn’t always DNA.”

The recent resolution of a 40-year-old murder cold case in Bucks County has thrown light on the tenacious, sometimes relentless approach that law enforcement often has to solving homicides that are decades old.

The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office recently announced that investigators with the DA’s office, in partnership with Pennsylvania State Police, had solved a county murder case from 1980, bringing closure to a complex and multilayered crime story after more than four decades.

Peter Eric Marschner, a German national, shot and killed Richard Wesley Wheeler sometime around Sept. 18, 1980, the DA’s office said. Marschner had been acting under orders from a third man, Leslie Schmidt.

The case had languished in irresolution until earlier this year when Detective David Hanks and State Trooper Christopher Cleveland had finally determined the last pieces of the puzzle.

County Deputy District Attorney Megan Hunsicker, who worked with Hanks and Cleveland to solve the case, told the DVJournal that, contrary to what’s often depicted in popular media, high-tech solutions like lab work and genetic sampling are only part of a detective’s repertoire in these cases.

“I can tell you that the one Detective Hanks and Trooper Cleveland solved really came down to procuring records from arrests,” she said.

She noted that in cases where genetic material like DNA is available “improved technology” can “definitely…provide the closure for these victims’ families that they deserve.”

Investigators in this case made the connection that Wheeler, Marschner and Schmidt had been incarcerated at the same time in Connecticut’s Danbury Federal Prison. Schmidt was known to have dealt methamphetamine in Bucks County, and the men conspired to set up a meth lab in the county once they were released.

Upon Wheeler’s release, Schmidt provided him with $250,000 to care for Schmidt’s family while he was still incarcerated. Schmidt eventually became convinced that the drug dealer was mishandling the huge sum meant for Schmidt’s family. Schmidt, still incarcerated, subsequently ordered Marschner to kill Wheeler.

Within the case file, investigators noted witness testimony from 1983 that alleged Schmidt had hired “a German guy” to carry out the murder. Following the killing, Marschner lived out the rest of his life under a pseudonym in New Jersey, dying in 2006.

Cold cases are common throughout the United States. The nonprofit Project: Cold Case, citing FBI data, says that “nearly 340,000 cases of homicide and non-negligent manslaughter went unsolved from 1965 to 2021.”

Hunsicker said cold cases are a regular part of a detective’s workload.

“They are assigned to detectives,” she said. “Some detectives are carrying more than one.”

Investigators regularly turn to their cold caseload as their schedules permit, she said, “whether it’s going out and talking to witnesses still available, or reassessing evidence we still have.”

Manuel Gamiz, the communications director for the Bucks County DA’s office, said district detectives “are regularly working on a number of cases at a time.”

Official circumstances dictate whether or not, and how, a detective follows up on a cold case during any given workweek. “If it’s the priority for them that day, if they have a lot of leads, they know how to spread it around,” Gamiz said. “They know how to organize their time.”

Cold case resolutions in which a suspect is still alive are rare, Gamiz said, though they do happen. He pointed to the recent apprehension of Robert Francis Atkins for the 1991 murder of Bristol Township resident Joy Hibbs, as well as the 2020 conviction of Daman Andrew Smoot for the 2004 killing of Adam Brundage.

Though all three individuals in the 1980 Wheeler case are dead, the DA’s office said in its announcement that Wheeler’s family was “grateful that this crime is now solved.”

Hunsicker, meanwhile, said district investigators are continuing to work diligently to crack unsolved cases under their jurisdiction.

“My office has made it a priority as far as cold cases to not leave them cold,” she said.

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