In. On August 15, 1975, 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington was walking to a Bible camp in a township outside Philadelphia when she was kidnapped and murdered.
On Monday, authorities said a man who had been the pastor of one of the camp’s host churches was arrested and charged with Harrington’s murder.
The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office said 83-year-old David Zandstra recently confessed after he was confronted with new evidence, including allegations by a witness that the former pastor groped her and may have tried to kidnap another local girl.
A law office representing Zandstra said it was aware of the charges but had no comment, according to NBC Philadelphia.
The charges against him include intentional homicide; first, second and third degree murder; kidnapping; and possession of a criminal instrument. The alleged crimes occurred in Marple Township, about 10 miles west of Philadelphia.
The new witness, who was not identified, provided a diary, prosecutors said. In it, he wrote an entry a month after Harrington’s disappearance, speculating that Zandstra may have been responsible for twice trying to kidnap another girl, prosecutors said in the criminal complaint against Zandstra.
«Guess what?» the witness is quoted as writing in an entry dated September 15, 1975. «A man tried to kidnap Holly twice! It’s a secret I can’t tell anyone, but I think he might have kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z.»
She also said the suspect groped her during a sleepover at her home seven days before Harrington went missing, according to the complaint. The witness, 10 years old at the time, was the best friend of one of Zandstra’s daughters.
talking to the suspect
On July 17, officials interviewed Zandstra near his Georgia home, according to the complaint and Delaware County Attorney’s spokeswoman Margie McAboy.
He volunteered to speak, State Trooper Eugene Tray said at Monday’s news conference, and was read his Miranda rights.
Given the new information from witnesses, Tray said, Zandstra confessed.
«He was relieved,» the policeman said. «It was like a weight was lifted off her shoulders.»
Zandstra said he was driving on Aug. 15, 1975, when he encountered Harrington walking to the Bible camp hosted by his congregation, Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, according to the criminal complaint.
Prosecutors said he routinely picked up the children to take them to camp mid-morning. Harrington was best friends with another daughter in the Zandstra household, so he was a familiar face, the complaint said.
Prosecutors said she was last seen two blocks from her home.
Zandstra told officers that he picked up Harrington as she was walking to the church and drove her to a nearby woods, where he parked. She asked him to take her to her house, but he ordered her to take off her clothes. When she refused to undress, he punched her in the head, she said, and she never regained consciousness from her, according to the file.
The suspect left her body, described in the complaint as «half naked,» in the woods, and covered it with foliage, according to the complaint.
Harrington’s father was the pastor of an adjacent church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, which hosted the second half of each day’s summer Bible camp, prosecutors said.
The victim used to walk with her two sisters, but they stayed home that day because their mother had just given birth, prosecutors said. Harrington’s father encouraged her to walk alone because she had a perfect attendance record, they said.
When she failed to show up at the Reformed Presbyterian Church by 11 am, Harrington’s father left in an attempt to find her on adjacent Lawrence Road, according to the complaint. When the clock showed her 23 minutes late, she called the police, according to the file.
He gave a description, noting that Harrington was 3 feet 6 inches tall, 50 pounds, and had blonde pigtails, according to the complaint. Interviewed days later, Zandstra described specific details about the girl’s shorts, including that they had a zipper and snap down the front, but no visible buttons, according to the complaint.
The details were unusual for two reasons, prosecutors argued: the girl never made it to the Bible camp, so they would not have seen her there; and the shorts were unique, handmade by the girl’s mother.
On October 14, 1975, Harrington’s remains were discovered in a state park in nearby Edgmont Township.
The cause and manner of death was homicide by at least two blows to the head, according to the complaint.
Harrington’s relatives said they are grateful to police and prosecutors.
«Gretchen’s kidnapping and murder has forever altered our family and we miss her every day,» the family said in a statement.
Marple Township Police Chief Graeff Brandon said Harrington’s time on Earth was «an unfulfilled life… due to sheer evil and depravity.»
He said during Monday’s news conference that his murder represented a change for a suburb that had once felt relatively innocent and crime-free.
«He transformed this community,» the chief said. «It was Anytown, USA.»
Prosecutors said Zandstra left the church and moved away from the area, settling first in Plano, Texas, and then Georgia, where he was held at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center Monday for a sixth day without bail, according to prosecutors and inmate records.
Authorities have expressed concern that there may be more victims and have asked anyone with information to come forward. State police were in the process of matching his DNA to other cold or open cases, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement Monday.
Prosecutors said Zandstra has refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania, which will prolong the process but is unlikely to stop it.
On Monday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the 48-year-old’s case is closed.
“We will bring him here to Delaware County, we will try him, we will convict him and he will die in jail,” he said.