A retired pastor in Georgia has been charged with the murder of an 8-year-old girl nearly 50 years ago, which was linked to a church camp in southeastern Pennsylvania.
David Zandstra, 83, was arrested by deputies of Cobb County Sheriff’s Office near Atlanta on July 17, and has been denied bail. On Monday, Jack Stollsteimer, district attorney for Delaware County, Penn., said in a press conference that Zandstra has been charged with criminal homicide, first-, second- and third-degree murder, kidnapping of a minor, and the possession of an instrument of crime. His office also released a detailed press statement.
Local authorities stated the murder of 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington, to which Zandstra confessed, forever changed the community. “Pre-August 1975, it was Any Town, U.S.A.,” said Police Chief Brandon Graeff. “Post- that day, it changed everything for the kids, for the parents . . . Nobody could do anything anymore in the innocence that they used to do it before this happened.”
Zandstra had been pastor of Trinity Christian Reformed Church in Broomall, Penn., for six years by summer 1975, when the crime occurred.
On August 15, 1975, the church where Zandstra ministered was co-hosting a summer camp with the church located on the adjoining lot. That congregation, Broomall Reformed Presbyterian Church, was led by Harold Harrington, father of Gretchen and her two sisters.
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According to a report based on a review of the police criminal complaint, usually Gretchen walked with her sisters to church. But she didn’t that day due to a new birth in the Harrington family.
Armed with new information from an unnamed friend, police recently traveled to Georgia and confronted Zandstra, who reportedly confessed to the crime. Zandstra reportedly told police that he saw Gretchen walking alone on the road, and offered her a ride, which she welcomed since Zandstra was her father’s friend. Rather than transporting her to the adjoining churches, Zandstra took her to a nearby wooded area, according to the district attorney’s statement.
Zandstra said he asked the victim to remove her clothing, the statement continues. “When she refused, he struck her in the head with a fist,” the statement said. “The victim was bleeding, and he believed her to be dead. He attempted to cover up her body and left the area.” Zandstra returned to the church camp, where Reverend Harrington soon informed his camp co-leader of the disappearance. Zandstra then contacted police to report her missing.
According to reports, authorities set up a 24-hour hotline that took hundreds of calls and distributed more than 2,000 leaflets. Hundreds of people searched nearby wooded areas. Within two months, on October 14, 1975, a body was found in Ridley Creek State Park and identified as Gretchen’s. Zandstra was interviewed twice in the process but denied seeing the victim on the day of the murder.
Zandstra, who was ordained in 1965, ministered for 40 years in multiple congregations affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). In a statement provided to The Roys Report (TRR), a spokesperson for the CRC stated that denomination leaders extend condolences to the family and were “grieved to hear that a CRC pastor has been arrested for her murder.”
The statement added: “We strive for our congregations to be places of peace, welcome, hospitality, and safety for all who attend and visit, but we grieve that this is not always the case. We especially grieve that this was not the case for Gretchen.”
At the recent CRC Annual Synod held on June 9 to 15 in Grand Rapids, Mich., delegates adopted a revised code of conduct to which all ministers and ministry leaders “must adhere to” at all levels of the denomination.
A girl’s journal entry cracks the case
In January of this year, a female who is described as a “best friend” to Zandstra’s daughter came forward with new information and was interviewed by Delaware County investigators. She provided a journal entry dated from September 1975, that states “a man tried to kidnap” a classmate. The girl wrote then: “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.”
Investigators determined that Zandstra lived in Marietta, Ga., and worked with the local county sheriff’s office to conduct an interview with Zandstra on July 17. Zandstra initially denied his involvement, but “confronted with the evidence,” he confessed. An arrest warrant and criminal complaint were subsequently filed, and Zandstra was arrested that day.
Authorities collected a DNA sample from Zandstra and have submitted it to the nationwide Codis database “so it can be compared to DNA collected in open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country,” according to the District Attorney’s statement.
Prior to his retirement in 2005, Zandstra had also served as pastor of CRC-affiliated churches in New Jersey, California, and Texas. The statement from CRC denomination leaders also noted: “We are grateful that local law enforcement did not stop in their pursuit of answers, and we pray that the truth will continue to come to light.”
Zandstra has opposed extradition to Delaware County, where his alleged crimes occurred. The District Attorney’s office, which has a request pending with the governors of both states, stated that the defendant is expected to be transported to Pennsylvania in due course.
“We’re going to try him, we’re going to convict him, and he’s going to die in jail,” said Stollsteimer at the press conference. “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.”
Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his family live in the Washington, D.C. area.