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By Rampart Stonebridge, updated on July 25, 2023

Charges filed as nearly 50-year cold case is finally solved

In a significant breakthrough, nearly half a century after the shocking murder of eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington, the law has finally caught up with the alleged perpetrator, David Zandstra.

The announcement of charges against 83-year-old David Zandstra, a resident of Marietta, Georgia, marks a significant milestone in a case that has haunted both the community and law enforcement for decades. District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer announced that Zandstra has been charged with criminal homicide, murder of the first, second, and third degree, kidnapping of a minor, and possession of an instrument of crime, as reported by the Delaware Country District Attorney's Office.

The story of Gretchen Harrington's tragic end began on the morning of August 15, 1975. She left her home to attend her summer bible camp, a place where she should have been safe. The camp was held at two locations, the Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church and The Reformed Presbyterian Church, both situated on Lawrence Road in Marple. Gretchen's father served as the pastor of The Reformed Presbyterian Church, while the defendant, Zandstra, was the pastor of Trinity Church.

The Day of disappearance: A Community shaken

Gretchen's father grew anxious when she failed to appear at The Reformed Presbyterian Church.

The alarm was raised, and at 11:23 am, Zandstra contacted the Marple Police Department to report Gretchen's disappearance. Two months later, a grim discovery was made in Ridley Creek State Park. Skeletal remains were found, which were later identified as Gretchen's.

During the initial investigation, a witness reported seeing Gretchen speaking with the driver of a green station wagon or a two-tone Cadillac. Zandstra, who was interviewed in October 1975, denied seeing Gretchen on the day of her abduction.

A witness emerges: The case takes a turn

Fast forward to January 2, 2023, when investigators interviewed an individual referred to as CI#1, who was best friends with Zandstra's daughter. CI#1 recalled an incident during a sleepover at Zandstra's house when she was ten years old. She was awakened by Zandstra groping her. When she told Zandstra's daughter about the incident, the daughter replied that her father did that sometimes. CI#1 also mentioned a child in her class who was nearly kidnapped twice and noted in her 1975 diary that she believed Zandstra was the likely culprit.

District Attorney Stollsteimer said before the blockquote:

“The murder of Gretchen Harrington has haunted members of law enforcement since that terrible day in August 1975. 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.”

Confession and arrest: The final pieces of the puzzle

Investigators traveled to Marietta, Georgia, to meet with Zandstra on July 17, 2023. Initially, Zandstra denied his involvement in Gretchen's disappearance. However, when confronted with the evidence provided by CI#1 of his sexual misconduct, he admitted to seeing Gretchen walking alone along Lawrence Road on the morning of her disappearance. He confessed to offering Gretchen a ride in his green station wagon, taking her to a nearby wooded area, and striking her in the head when she refused to undress. He believed she was dead, attempted to cover up her body, and left the area.

Lieutenant Jonathan Sunderlin of the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) said before the blockquote:

“Justice does not have an expiration date. Whether a crime happened fifty years ago or five minutes ago, the residents of the Commonwealth can have confidence that law enforcement will not rest until justice is served.”

Collaborative efforts and recognition: The pursuit of justice

The case has been investigated by generations of detectives who never gave up hope that Gretchen's killer would be identified. Recognition was given to Corporal Andrew J. Martin of the Criminal Investigation Assessment Unit, Missing Persons Unit, Troop K, for his determination and belief that the case could still be solved.

District Attorney Stollsteimer also recognized the work and dedication of the Marple Police Department, particularly Chief Brandon Graeff, and thanked the members of the Cobb County Police Department for their assistance with the case.

“Numerous law enforcement agencies have been involved in this case over the years, and we must also recognize the work and dedication of the Marple Police Department, particularly Chief Brandon Graeff. Like the state police, they never gave up hope that Gretchen’s killer would be identified and they should be recognized for their tenacious pursuit of justice.”

Arrest and extradition: The road to trial

An arrest warrant and criminal complaint were filed in Delaware County on July 17, 2023. At that time, Zandstra was taken into custody in Georgia. He was denied bail and remains in jail in Cobb County, Georgia. The defendant refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania.

The District Attorney’s office will be submitting a petition for requisition to Governor Shapiro for approval. Once approved, it will be forwarded to the Governor of Georgia, and arrangements will be made to have representatives from the Delaware County Sheriff’s office pick up the defendant and bring him to Pennsylvania.

A DNA sample was collected from Zandstra and will be submitted to the Combined DNA Index System (Codis) to be compared to DNA collected in open cases in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Aftermath

Following his residence in Pennsylvania, Zandstra lived in Plano, Texas, and Marietta, Georgia. Anyone with additional information about Zandstra’s activities when he was living in Texas or in Georgia is asked to call the Pennsylvania State Police.

  • The tragic murder of eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington in 1975.
  • The decades-long investigation that led to the arrest of David Zandstra.
  • The confession of Zandstra and his arrest in Georgia.
  • The collaborative efforts of multiple law enforcement agencies in solving the case.
  • The ongoing process of extradition and trial.

Please share this article on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about this case and the tireless efforts of law enforcement to bring justice to Gretchen Harrington and her family.

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Written By: Rampart Stonebridge

I'm Rampart Stonebridge, a curious and passionate writer who can't get enough of true crime. As a criminal investigative journalist, I put on my detective hat, delving deep into each case to reveal the hidden truths. My mission? To share engaging stories and shed light on the complexities of our mysterious world, all while satisfying your curiosity about the intriguing realm of true crime.

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