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.
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.