Cops: For Years, Girl's Killer Acted Like 'Friend' of the Family

Former pastor David Zandstra charged with 1975 killing of another pastor's daughter
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 25, 2023 9:15 AM CDT

A former Pennsylvania pastor who reported the disappearance of a neighboring pastor's daughter when she failed to turn up at summer Bible camp in 1975 has admitted to murdering the girl who refused to remove her clothing for him. Eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington had set out from her home on the morning of Aug. 15, 1975, to walk less than a mile to Bible camp, held at two neighboring Marple churches. Her father was the pastor at one of the churches, while the suspect, David Zandstra, was the pastor at the other. It was Zandstra who reported Gretchen missing. According to a criminal complaint, investigators found inaccuracies in his early statements and questioned how he knew so much about what Gretchen had been wearing that day, per CNN. But Zandstra denied involvement.

A break came in January, soon after the publication of a book on the case, when investigators spoke with a woman who'd been friends with Zandstra's daughter in the 1970s. The woman revealed diary entries indicating she was awoken to Zandstra "groping her groin area" during a sleepover at the family home when she was 10, and that Zandstra's daughter told her he "did that sometimes," according to a release. The woman had also written that she suspected "Mr. Z" of kidnapping Gretchen and of trying to kidnap another girl. Questioned by police last month in Marietta, Georgia, where he now lives, Zandstra admitted he offered a ride to Gretchen, drove her to a wooded area, "ejaculated in front of her," then punched her when she refused to remove her clothes, reports WCAU.

Gretchen's remains were discovered in Ridley Creek State Park some two months after her disappearance. She was found to have suffered blunt force trauma to the head. Speaking Monday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said Zandstra was "a monster" who "acted as if he was a family friend, not only during her burial and the period after that, but for years," per WCAU. Now "he's going to die in jail," he said, per WPVI. In a statement, the Harrington family thanked police "for never stopping in their constant search for answers," adding "we would not be here today if it was not for them." Arrested July 17, 83-year-old Zandstra is charged with murder, kidnapping, and other crimes. He remains in custody while awaiting extradition to Pennsylvania. (More cold cases stories.)

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