A retired US pastor who presided over the funeral of an abducted eight-year-old girl nearly fifty years ago has been charged with her murder.
Gretchen Harrington disappeared while attending summer Bible camp in the Philadelphia suburb of Marple Township on the morning of August 15, 1975. An anonymous woman told investigators earlier this year that she believed the perpetrator to be the father of her closest friend.
The 83-year-old David Zandstra is now charged with murder and kidnapping of a juvenile. On Monday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer told the media that he is every parent's worst nightmare.
“He murdered the child who had placed her trust in him and whom he knew. Not only during her funeral and the time that followed, but also for years, he acted as if he were a family friend.”
Last year's publication of Marple's Gretchen Harrington Tragedy, helped revive interest in the case. Mr. Zandstra served as pastor of the Trinity Christian Reformed Church in 1975. Each morning, Bible programs were held on the property, and the children were transported to a second church.
Gretchen did not arrive at the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and Mr. Zandstra himself reported her disappearance to the police that morning. Almost two months later, her remains were discovered in a nearby wooded area.
The suspect was a family friend of the Harringtons, assisted in the search for the child, and even officiated at her funeral, according to sources.
Investigators claim that Mr. Zandstra invited Gretchen into his vehicle once she was no longer visible to her deceased father, who had been watching her walk up the family's driveway.
A witness who was subsequently interrogated reported seeing the girl converse with the driver of a vehicle that resembled Mr. Zandstra's green Rambler station wagon. However, when questioned by the authorities at the time, the pastor denied seeing Gretchen on that day.
In January of this year, investigators interviewed the daughter's closest friend of Mr. Zandstra. She disclosed that she frequently spent the night at their residence and, at age 10, awoke to discover the pastor fondling her.
The woman also provided police with a 1975 diary entry in which she wrote, "I believe he may have abducted Gretchen. "I believe it was Mr. Z,"
Mr. Zandstra relocated several times, residing in California and Texas prior to his apprehension by Pennsylvania State Police in Georgia last week; police claim he confessed to the crime. The suspect is currently detained in a local prison and will be extradited to Pennsylvania.
Joanna Falcone Sullivan, co-author of Marple's Gretchen Harrington Tragedy, told the sources that she believes their book helped uncover new leads.
The author stated that during an interview with Mr. Zandstra for the book, he "sounded as if he did not recall everything that occurred that morning. His wife remembered much more than he did.
Mrs. Sullivan said, "We attributed it to old age." She added, "The narrative has had such an impact on the community. Monday, the state trooper to whom Mr. Zandstra allegedly confessed his crime stated that the suspect appeared relieved.