Nearly 48 years after 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington was abducted and murdered on her way to church in August 1975, Pennsylvania State Police have made an arrest in the decades old unsolved case.
The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office (Pennsylvania) announced today that 83-year-old David Zandstra of Marietta, Georgia, has been charged with criminal homicide of murder of the first, second, and third degree, as well as the kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime.
The Harrington family has released this statement through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children:
“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.”
According to police, Gretchen was last seen on the morning of August 15, 1975, when she left her home to walk to a summer bible camp program on the premises of two local churches. Investigators say that Zandstra was the pastor of one church and responsible for transporting children to the secondary location after their morning activities.
An image of Lawrence Road in Marple Township, PA, where Gretchen was last seen. (Photo Courtesy of the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania)
Gretchen’s father, who was the pastor of the secondary church location, became concerned when his daughter did not arrive at the church and reported her missing to police. At the time, the case was the subject of an intensive manhunt in the area.
Two months later, the search for Gretchen came to an end when her body was discovered by a jogger in a secluded area of Ridley Creek State Park.
According to the district attorney, a break in the case occurred on July 17, 2023, when investigators traveled to Marietta, Georgia, to interview Zandstra. Although he initially denied his involvement in Gretchen’s disappearance, police say that after being confronted with evidence provided by an individual in January 2023 of sexual misconduct in his past, Zandstra admitted to seeing Gretchen walking alone on the road the morning of her disappearance.
Then, Zandstra told investigators that he offered Gretchen a ride and took her to a nearby wooded area where he parked the car and asked her to take off her clothing. When she refused, Zandstra struck her in the head with his fist. Investigators say Zandstra said Gretchen was bleeding and he believed she was dead. He attempted to cover up her body and left the area.
Ridley Creek State Park, October 1975, the location where Gretchen's body was discovered. (Photo Courtesy of the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania)
“The murder of Gretchen Harrington has haunted members of law enforcement since that terrible day in August 1975,” said District Attorney Stollsteimer. “The families of victims 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.”
According to the press release, Zandstra is currently in custody in Georgia. He refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania. The District Attorney’s office will submit a petition for requisition. Once approved, arrangements will be made to have representatives from the Delaware County Sheriff’s office pick up the defendant and bring him to Pennsylvania.
“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, and the Cobb County Police Department 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.”
83-year-old David Zandstra (Photo Courtesy of the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania)
Investigators say a DNA sample was collected from Zandstra and will be submitted so it can be compared to open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country. Following his residence in Pennsylvania, Zandstra lived in Plano, Texas and Marietta, Georgia.
Because Zandstra was a pastor, and likely around children throughout his career, DA Stollsteimer said they are concerned that other victims might be out there.
“We need to be diligent. If anyone has any information about that…if David Zandstra ever committed an act against you, please reach out to District Attorney Geoffrey Paine or the Pennsylvania State Police.”
*Images in this blog were released at a press conference today held by the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office (Pennsylvania).