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An 83-year-old retired pastor was arrested and charged with the kidnapping and murder of a fellow pastor’s 8-year-old daughter in 1975, Pennsylvania officials announced Monday.
David Zandstra of Marietta, Georgia, was charged by Delaware County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer after he allegedly confessed to the slaying of Gretchen Harrington. The young girl’s remains were found weeks after she disappeared on her way to a Bible camp in August of 1975, NBC Philadelphia reported.
At the time of Harrington’s murder, Zandstra served as a reverend at Trinity Christian Reformed Church, one of two churches Harrington attended — the other church being Reformed Presbyterian Church, where her father pastored. On the day Harrington disappeared, her father became worried when she didn’t arrive at the camp, according to the criminal complaint, CNN reported. At the time, Zandstra denied knowing anything about the girl’s disappearance.
“This man is evil. He killed this poor 8-year-old girl he knew and who trusted him. And, then he acted as if he was a family friend, not only during her burial and the period after that, but for years,” Stollsteimer said.
When Harrington was walking to the Bible camp alone, Zandstra pulled up alongside her and offered her a ride, according to Stollsteimer. The district attorney said Zandstra gave police a statement admitting that he took Harrington to a secluded place and told her to take her clothes off. When she refused, Zandstra allegedly beat her to death with his fists.
Two months went by before Harrington’s skeletal remains were found at Ridley Creek State Park, more than seven miles from her home. The medical examiner said she died from “two or more blunt impacts to the skull” and ruled her death a homicide, according to court documents.
In January, Pennsylvania State Police learned of new evidence from a confidential informant who had been friends with one of Zandstra’s daughters. The new evidence included a diary the informant kept in 1975 where she wrote that Zandstra “touched her groin area” two separate times when she attended a sleepover at his home, according to the complaint.
In another diary entry from September 1975, the informant wrote, “Guess what? A man tried to kidnap Holly twice! It’s a secret so I can’t tell anyone, but I think he might be the one who kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z.”
Zandstra moved from Pennsylvania after Harrington’s disappearance, living in Plano, Texas, before moving to Marietta, Georgia. Investigators confronted Zandstra in Georgia with the new evidence, and he admitted to committing the crime, according to the district attorney’s news release. Police collected DNA from Zandstra to compare it to DNA collected from the crime scene and to open cases from across the state and the country, the district attorney said.
“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,” read a statement from the family. “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.”