PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A retired Georgia minister has been charged with the murder of an eight-year-old girl whose remains were found in southeastern Pennsylvania nearly half a century ago.
David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta, is charged with first, second and third degree criminal murder, kidnapping of a minor and a related offense in connection with the 1975 death of Gretchen Harrington in Delaware County.
District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer told reporters Monday at the Delaware County media headquarters that the defendant was “a monster” and “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
“This is a man who is a ruthless child predator who pretended to be a friend, a neighbor and a man of God, and he killed this poor little girl,” Stollsteimer said.
After killing a child who knew and trusted him, “he then acted as if he were her family friend, not just during and after her funeral, but for years to come,” the district attorney said.
Harrington, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, disappeared in mid-August 1975 while walking from her home in Marple Township to Bible camp at Trinity Church Chapel, where Zandstra was the minister. Her body was found two months later by a jogger at Ridley Creek State Park in Media.
Harrington, who is usually accompanied by her sisters but is alone on the day due to a recent birth in her family, was offered a ride by Zandstra, who was also the father of one of her best friends, Stollsteimer claimed.
“When he offered her a ride in his car, of course she got in,” he said.
Zandstra took her to a wooded place and eventually hit her on the head. He believed she was dead and tried to cover her body, authorities said. When he returned to his church, “he tried to pretend nothing had happened,” and when her father, a pastor at the nearby Reformed Presbyterian Church, called to find her, Zandstra was the one who called the police, Stollsteimer claimed.
In the days that followed, hundreds of people searched nearby wooded areas, and authorities distributed more than 2,000 leaflets and set up a 24-hour hotline that took hundreds of calls, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. When the girl’s body was found in mid-October 1975, her clothing lay “folded and in a neat pile” near her body, and her underwear “hung like a flag” from a branch … as if to draw attention to the site, the Inquirer reported at the time.
Stollsteimer said new information from an unnamed friend of the victim prompted state police to travel to Georgia and question Zandstra, who authorities say confessed to the crime.
Police officer Eugene Tray said the defendant’s behavior was “relieved”, as if “a weight had been lifted from his shoulders”. Stollsteimer said Zandstra is fighting extradition from Georgia, even though the prosecutor promised he would be sent back to Pennsylvania to stand trial.
The defendant’s DNA will be compared to material from open cases in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, authorities said. Zandstra lived in Texas and Georgia after leaving the Commonwealth, they said. The Reformed Christian Church states that he ministered in New Jersey, California and Texas before retiring in 2005. Authorities said they were concerned there may have been more victims and urged anyone with information to contact investigators.
Zandstra remained in custody in Georgia; A message was left Monday for a Pennsylvania attorney listed as his representative.
Gretchen Harrington’s family asked for privacy, but said in a statement that they were “extremely confident” that the person responsible would be held accountable for taking them from them, which “changed our family forever and we miss them every single day.”
“When you met Gretchen, you became her friend immediately. She radiated kindness to everyone and was sweet and gentle,” the family said. “Even today, when people share their memories of her, the first thing they talk about is how amazing she was and still is…at just 8 years old, she had a lifelong impact on those around her.”