83-yr-old suspected child predator learns that justice ‘doesn’t have an expiration date’

A break in a nearly 50-year-old cold case showed justice “does not have an expiration date” as authorities brought in the suspected murderer of an eight-year-old girl.

(Video: 6ABC)

In August 1975, Gretchen Harrington, the eight-year-old daughter of the pastor of Reformed Presbyterian Church in Marple Township, Pennsylvania, went missing after she had walked from her home to Bible camp at Trinity Church Chapel. Almost five decades later, 83-year-old David Zandstra, then-pastor at Trinity, was arrested in Marietta, Georgia, admitting to the heinous act.

“This is a man who is a remorseless child predator who acted as if he was a friend, a neighbor and a man of God, and he killed this poor little girl,” said Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer at a press conference Monday.

According to the release from the DA’s office, Zandstra was responsible for transporting the children from Trinity to Reformed and had been interviewed at the time, denying seeing the victim on the day she disappeared. Harrington’s remains were later discovered by a jogger on Oct. 14, 1975.

Gretchen Harrington
Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

On Jan. 2 of this year, investigators interviewed an individual who had filed a criminal complaint, alleging that at 10 years old Zandstra had groped her groin area when she attended a sleepover with the suspect’s daughter who, according to the claimant, said he did that sometimes.

The claimant’s diary pointed suspicion at Zandstra and, as detailed in the court filing, also accused him of attempting to kidnap another of her classmates twice. “Guess what? A man tried to kidnap Holly twice! 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.”

After being confronted with evidence of sexual misconduct by the Cobb County Police Department in Georgia, the suspect reportedly admitted to driving Harrington to a wooded area that day and beating the victim after she refused to take her clothes off. Believing her dead, “He attempted to cover up her body and left the area.”

Zandstra was arrested and charged with “criminal homicide, murder of the first, second, and third degree, as well as kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime.”

David Zandstra
Delaware County District Attorney’s Office

“The murder of Gretchen Harrington had haunted members of law enforcement since that terrible day in August 1975. The families of victims often say that their lives are forever altered into the ‘before’ time and the ‘after’ time. Gretchen’s murder created a ‘before’ time and an ‘after’ time for an entire community — and for an entire country,” Stollsteimer said in the release. “This heinous act left a family and a community forever changed. At long last I can announce today that her killer — David Zandstra — has admitted to his crime. Justice has been a long time coming, but we are proud and grateful to finally be able to give the community an answer.”

In their own statement, the family of Harrington expressed, “The abduction and murder of Gretchen has forever altered our family and we miss her every single day. We are grateful for the continual pursuit of justice by law enforcement and we want to thank the Pennsylvania State Police for never stopping in their constant search for answers.”

The suspect was reported to have refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania and is expected to be transported from Georgia as soon as approval is processed. In the meantime, a DNA sample was collected to compare with other open cases across the country.

Zandstra relocated a number of times throughout his life, living in Texas and ministering in California and New Jersey before settling in Georgia. As such, authorities are asking anyone with information to come forward.

“Justice does not have an expiration date…This case has been investigated by generations of detectives, and they all are owed a debt of gratitude for never giving up,” Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Jonathan Sunderlin said.

He added, “Particular recognition is due today to Corporal Andrew J. Martin, of the Criminal Investigation Assessment Unit, Missing Persons Unit, Troop K. His determination to build upon the work of his predecessors, and his belief that the case could still be solved, have been instrumental in getting us to today’s announcement.”

Kevin Haggerty

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