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Former Church Minister Charged With 1975 Murder of 8-Year-Old Girl

On the morning of Aug. 15, 1975, Gretchen Harrington, 8, left her home in Broomall, Pa., for summer Bible school. The Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church was less than half a mile down the road, but Gretchen never made it.

Skeletal remains found nearby in Ridley Creek State Park on Oct. 14, 1975, were later identified as Gretchen’s. The cause of her death, which was ruled a homicide, was found to be injuries to her head. But, for decades, no one knew who killed her.

On Monday, the district attorney’s office in Delaware County, Pa., west of Philadelphia, announced that it had filed charges against David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Ga., in Gretchen’s murder. Mr. Zandstra, who was a minister at the church in the 1970s, was charged with criminal homicide, kidnapping of a minor, possessing an instrument of crime and murder of the first, second and third degrees.

Mr. Zandstra was taken into custody in Georgia on July 17, the authorities said. He is being held in Cobb County, Ga., where he has been denied bail.

Jack Stollsteimer, the Delaware County district attorney, said at a news conference on Monday that Mr. Zandstra was fighting extradition to Pennsylvania, and that his office was seeking a governor’s warrant to bring Mr. Zandstra to Delaware County.

“We’re going to try him, we’re going to convict him and he’s going to die in jail,” Mr. Stollsteimer said. “And then he’s going to have to find out what the God he professes to believe in holds for those who are this evil to our children.”

The charges filed against Mr. Zandstra have brought a sense of closure to Broomall, which has been haunted by Gretchen’s abduction and murder for nearly 48 years. Chief Brandon Graeff of the Police Department in Marple Township, which includes Broomall, said at the news conference that Gretchen’s murder had “transformed this community.”

“Pre-August 1975, it was Any Town, U.S.A.,” he said. “Post- that day, it changed everything for the kids, for the parents, for the families, for everybody because nobody could do anything anymore in the innocence that they used to do it before this happened.”

A family photo of Gretchen Harrington

Gretchen’s family said in a statement on Monday that they were “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,” the family said. “The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day.”

It was unclear if Mr. Zandstra had a lawyer. His wife, Margaret Zandstra, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The website of the Christian Reformed Church lists Mr. Zandstra as a retired minister and says he was ordained on Sept. 20, 1965. In addition to the Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church in Broomall, Mr. Zandstra also served at churches in New Jersey, California and Texas between 1965 and 2005.

The Christian Reformed Church said in a statement on Monday that it wanted to “extend our condolences to the family of Gretchen Harrington.”

“We are additionally grieved to hear that a C.R.C. pastor has been arrested for her murder,” the church said. “We recognize that we live in a broken and sinful world where violence can happen anywhere by anyone — even within our churches and by leaders we hold to the highest standards.”

The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office said it had collected from Mr. Zandstra a DNA sample that would be compared to DNA collected in other open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country.

“We are concerned that there may be more victims who might have been sexually assaulted by this man,” Mr. Stollsteimer said. “We want to hold him accountable for everything he did.”

Joanna Sullivan, a co-author of “Marple’s Gretchen Harrington Tragedy: Kidnapping, Murder and Innocence Lost in Suburban Philadelphia,” which published in October 2022, said on Tuesday that she was “stunned” when she learned that Mr. Zandstra had been charged in the case.

Ms. Sullivan, who grew up in Broomall, was 9 when Gretchen went missing. In reporting for the book, Ms. Sullivan and her co-author, Mike Mathis, interviewed Mr. Zandstra, his wife and his daughter. Mr. Zanstra had a “murky recollection” of the day Gretchen went missing, Ms. Sullivan said.

After Gretchen’s abduction and murder, Ms. Sullivan said there was a sense of fear and apprehension in Broomall. She said she remembered seeing a helicopter flying over her neighborhood in the search effort for Gretchen.

“That image stayed with me for the rest of my life,” Ms. Sullivan said of the helicopter.

Gretchen was supposed to be at Trinity Chapel Christian Reformed Church by 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1975, according to a police criminal complaint. Around 11 a.m. that day, Harold Harrington, Gretchen’s father and the reverend of the church, learned that she wasn’t there and called the Marple Township Police Department to report her missing.

In the weeks that followed, the police spoke with several people to piece together what had happened to Gretchen. They interviewed Mr. Zandstra twice, on Aug. 19 and again on Oct. 30. He told them that he had picked up some children and driven them to the church the day Gretchen went missing, but he denied having seen her that day, according to the complaint.

The police were unable to find any leads that could steer them closer to discovering who had killed Gretchen, and the case went cold. Then, earlier this year, investigators interviewed a woman, identified in the complaint as “CI #1,” who had come forward and said she went to school with Gretchen and Zoey Harrington, one of Gretchen’s sisters.

The woman told investigators on Jan. 2 that she was friends with Mr. Zandstra’s daughters, and that she would often play at the Zandstra home and stay overnight. The woman told the police that, during two sleepovers, she was awakened by Mr. Zandstra touching her groin area.

Eventually, the woman said, she told her parents, and that a short time afterward the Zandstras moved to Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb, according to the complaint.

As the woman was being interviewed, she showed investigators a diary that she kept when she was a girl. In one entry, dated Sept. 15, 1975, she wrote: “Guess what? A man tried to kidnap Holly twice,” referring to a girl in her class.

“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,” she wrote, referring to Mr. Zandstra.

The interview and the journal entry prompted investigators to track down Mr. Zandstra, who was living in Marietta, northwest of Atlanta.

Investigators interviewed Mr. Zandstra at Cobb County police headquarters in Marietta on July 17. At first, Mr. Zandstra denied having seen Gretchen on the day she went missing, according to the police complaint. But eventually, it said, he confessed.

He told the police that he saw Gretchen walking to church that morning, and that he picked her up in his green A.M.C. Rambler station wagon. But instead of taking her to church, Mr. Zandstra told investigators, he drove her to a wooded area nearby, parked the car and then told Gretchen to remove her clothes, and she refused.

He told the police that he ejaculated while Gretchen was in the vehicle with him, according to the police complaint. After that, Mr. Zandstra said, he struck Gretchen with his fist and she began bleeding from her head. Realizing that Gretchen appeared to be dead, Mr. Zandstra told the police, he “attempted to cover up her half-naked body with sticks and then he left the area,” the complaint said.

“He murdered, with his bare hands, this poor young girl and then lied about it for 48 years,” Mr. Stollsteimer said at the news conference on Monday.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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