Delaware County law enforcement, Pa. state police crack 48-year-old Marple Township cold case

Delaware County District Attorney is charging David Zandstra, 83, for the kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington back in 1975.

Gretchen Harrington.

Gretchen Harrington was abducted and found dead in 1975. (6abc)

The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania State Trooper have cracked a nearly 50-year-old cold case in Marple Township.

District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced charges against David Zandstra, 83, during a Monday afternoon news conference for the 1975 kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington.

“He admitted to everything we have said here today. He murdered, with his bare hands, this poor young girl and then lied about it for 48 years,” Stollsteimer said.

Gretchen’s disappearance has cast a shadow on Marple for decades.

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“Pre-August 1975, it was Anytown, USA. 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 before this happened,” Marple Township Police Chief Brandon Graeff said.

Gretchen left her home on the morning of August 15, 1975, to walk to summer bible camp at Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church and The Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Zandstra was a pastor at Trinity, while Gretchen’s father was a pastor at Reformed. According to the county District Attorney’s Office, Zandstra was one of the people responsible for transporting children between the two churches. Later that morning, Gretchen’s father noticed she was missing. He subsequently notified the police, and a search ensued.

Gretchen’s remains were discovered at Ridley Creek State Park on October 14, 1975. In a written statement, the Harrington family expressed hope in accountability following Zandstra’s arrest.

“​​It’s difficult to express the emotions that we are feeling as we take one step closer to justice,” the statement read.

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A break in the case came in January 2023 when an unnamed individual, a childhood friend of Zandstra’s daughter, came forward with information implicating Zandstra’s alleged involvement .

According to the District Attorney’s Office, the individual revealed information accusing Zandstra of “groping” her when she was 10-years-old during a sleepover. She also showed investigators a notation in her diary from 1975 that said she believed Zandstra was responsible for a separate attempted kidnapping.

Investigators tracked down Zandstra, who was living in Marietta, Georgia, and traveled there to question him on July 17. While he initially denied any involvement in Gretchen’s kidnapping, Zandstra eventually admitted to the crime and its details.

“He was relieved. I would say it was like a weight was lifted off the shoulders,” Trooper Eugene Tray said. “It was extraordinary to see. It was just that he was a different person. Even when he was told that he was going to be placed under arrest that day, he was okay with it.”

Zandstra has since refused to waive his extradition from jail in Cobbs County, Georgia. The District Attorney’s Office is filing a petition with Governor Josh Shapiro to have Zandstra extradited to Pennsylvania.

After Zandstra left Pennsylvania following Gretchen’s murder, Stollsteimer said Zandstra also worked as a pastor in both Georgia and Texas.

“There could be other victims out there. We would ask them to contact us. We want to hold him accountable for everything he did. If we can do so, I think officials in Texas and Georgia would want to do the same thing,” Stollsteimer said.

Law enforcement collected Zandstra’s DNA and will submit the sample to the Combined DNA Index System to be compared to active cases across the country.

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