Retired Pastor Confesses To Murder After 50 Years: 83-year-old retired pastor David Zandstra, has admitted to kidnapping and killing Gretchen Harrington, then 8 years old, nearly 50 years ago as she walked to summer Bible camp.
Gretchen Harrington’s murder has troubled members of the law enforcement community since that tragic day in August 1975. According to the victims’ families, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ times in their lives have been permanently altered. “For an entire community—and an entire county—Gretchen’s murder created a ‘before’ and a ‘after’ time,” Stollsteimer said in a news release on Monday.
“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.”
The pastor was charged with criminal homicide, murder of the first, second and third degree, kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime.
Zandstra was the pastor of Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, located at 140 Lawrence Road in Marple, Pennsylvania, at the time of the murder. Gretchen’s father was the pastor of The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Marple, which was located at 144 Lawrence Road.
Gretchen’s father became concerned when his daughter failed to show up for a camp session on Trinity Church grounds. Zandstra reported Gretchen missing to the Marple Police Department at 11:23 a.m. that day. Gretchen’s skeletal remains were discovered in Ridley Creek State Park about a month later, on October 14, 1975.
Among his responsibilities at the camp, Zandstra was in charge of transporting campers between the two church properties. He was seen driving a white or blue Volkswagen bus or a green Rambler station wagon.
During the initial investigation, a witness reported seeing Gretchen talking with the driver of either a green station wagon or a two-tone Cadillac, but Zandstra denied seeing the girl on the day she vanished.
On Jan. 2, an individual only identified as CI#1 in a complaint, who was best friends with Zandstra’s daughter, claimed he would grope her in the groin area during sleepovers when she was 10 years old.
When CI#1 told Zandstra’s daughter what had happened, she admitted that her father occasionally behaved in this manner. She also remembered Zandstra being responsible for the nearly kidnapping of another student in her class, which she had noted in her diary in 1975.
On July 17, investigators located Zandstra in Marietta and confronted him with the sexual misconduct allegations. Police say Zandstra admitted to killing Harrington after initially denying his crimes.
“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,” the release said.
Pennsylvania State Police Lieutenant Jonathan Sunderlin praised the generations of investigators who refused to give up on solving the murder.
“Justice does not have an expiration date. Whether a crime happened 50 years ago or five minutes ago, the residents of the Commonwealth can have confidence that law enforcement will not rest until justice is served,” he said. “This case has been investigated by generations of detectives, and they all are owed a debt of gratitude for never giving up.”