Philadelphia: In August 1975, the disappearance of a young girl shocked a community in southeastern Pennsylvania. Gretchen Harrington was just 8 years old when she left to attend a summer Bible camp near her home. She was never seen again, and her remains were discovered two months later.
Now, almost five decades after she disappeared, the pastor of one of the churches that hosted the camp - and a family friend of the Harringtons' - has confessed to her abduction and murder.
This man is evil. He killed this poor 8-year-old girl he knew and who trusted him and then he acted as if he was a family friend not only during her burial and the period after that, but for years.
On Monday, prosecutors announced that David Zandstra, 83, had been charged with criminal homicide; first-, second- and third-degree murder; the kidnapping of a minor and the possession of an instrument of crime.
"The families of victims often say that their lives are forever altered into the 'before' time and the 'after' time," Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said in the statement. "Gretchen's murder created a 'before' time and an 'after' time for an entire community - and for an entire county."
Zandstra was the pastor of the Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, where the Bible camp Harrington attended began in the morning. He would then transport the children to the nearby Reformed Presbyterian Church, where Harrington's father was the pastor, for the rest of the day.
Harrington normally walked to the Trinity Church with her sisters, but made her way to the camp alone on Aug. 15, 1975, Stollsteimer told a news conference Monday.
When Harrington's father became worried when his daughter hadn't turned up to camp, Zandstra was the one who called the police, prosecutors said.
In fact, Zandstra had offered Harrington a ride when he saw her walking alone, and drove her to a wooded area where he asked her to undress, prosecutors alleged. "When she refused, he struck her in the head with a fist. The victim was bleeding, and he believed her to be dead. He attempted to cover up her body and left the area," the District Attorney's Office said in a statement.
Harrington's remains were found in Ridley Creek State Park in Media, Pa., on October 14, 1975.
An eyewitness at the time had told police they saw Harrington speaking to the owner of a green car - one that matched the description of a car Zandstra owned, prosecutors said. However, when interviewed by police in October 1975, Zandstra denied seeing Harrington the day she disappeared.
"This man is evil. He killed this poor 8-year-old girl he knew and who trusted him and then he acted as if he was a family friend not only during her burial and the period after that, but for years," Stollsteimer said Monday.
Breakthrough in the case
The breakthrough in the case came in January this year, when investigators interviewed a woman who was friends with Zandstra's daughter as a child and often attended sleepovers at the family's home.
The woman said she woke up during a sleepover when she was about 10 years old to find the Zandstra sexually assaulting her, groping her groin area. When she told Zandstra's daughter, she "replied that the defendant did that sometimes," according to the District Attorney's statement.
Investigators travelled to speak with Zandstra in Marietta, Ga., where he now lives, last week. At first, he denied any role in Harrington's disappearance, but when told about other allegations of sexual assault against him, he admitted he had offered Harrington a ride, drove her away and killed her when she refused to undress, prosecutors said.
Zandstra was denied bail and is fighting extradition to Pennsylvania. Police say they have taken a DNA sample so it can be compared with any open cases across the country.
"We are concerned that there may be more victims who might have been sexually assaulted by this man, this evil, evil man," Stollsteimer said Monday, and called on any other victims to contact authorities.
Stollsteimer said that Zandstra had also served as a pastor in Texas and Georgia after leaving Pennsylvania. The Christian Reformed Church lists him as having also worked as a minister between 1965 and 2005 at churches in New Jersey, Texas and California.
An official at the news conference said that Harrington's mother and three sisters are still alive. In a statement, the family asked for privacy but said they were "extremely hopeful" that her killer would be brought to justice, according to the Associated Press.
"She exuded kindness to all and was sweet and gentle," the family said. "Even now, 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."