Law enforcement announced the arrest of a former Christian Reformed pastor Monday, July 24, in a previously unsolved 1975 murder case of a young girl in Broomall, Penn. Gretchen Harrington, who was 8, went missing Aug. 15, 1975, between her home and a summer Bible school program run on the premises of two Marple, Penn., churches: Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reformed Church and The Reformed Presbyterian Church, where her father was pastor, a press release from the Office of the District Attorney for Delaware County said.
David Zandstra, 83, of Marietta, Ga., is 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,” the release said. At the time of the murder he was the pastor of the Trinity Church Chapel CRC and is currently a retired minister whose credentials are held by the last church he served, Fairfield (Calif.) CRC.
The Christian Reformed Church in a statement given to the press extended “condolences to the family of Gretchen Harrington. We are heartbroken to hear about her death. We are additionally grieved to hear that a CRC pastor has been arrested for her murder,” it read.
“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,” the statement concluded. A longer statement was shared publicly July 25.
Zandstra “admitted to his crime” the district attorney news release said, after being confronted with evidence provided to police about sexual misconduct witnessed by a person referred to as CI#1 and described as having been “best friends with the defendant’s daughter.”
At a press conference Monday (which was streamed online by 6 abc Action News WPVI-TV Philadelphia, Penn.) District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer was questioned about how that witness came forward and whether Zandstra was a suspect in 1975. Stollsteimer would not give details on the initial investigation or recent interviews that led to the filing of the criminal complaint and the arrest warrant July 17. He did describe the crime as admitted to by Zandstra and included the details in his office’s release. Stollsteimer congratulated the Marple County police and state troopers for their “relentlessness in seeking justice.”
Zandstra is in jail in Cobb County, Ga., according to the district attorney’s release, where he was taken into custody July 17. He was denied bail. Pennsylvania authorities are working to have him extradited for a trial. “We’re going to bring him here, try him, convict him, and he will die in jail,” Stollsteimer said. “Then he's going to have to find out what the God he professes to believe in holds for people who are this evil to our children.”
Zandstra served five congregations in the Christian Reformed Church between 1965 and 2005. Three of those have since closed. The denomination’s director of communications and marketing, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, said she contacted the two remaining churches, Trinity and Fairfield, the day of the announced arrest. She offered to connect the congregations to Amanda Benckhuysen, who formerly served the denomination as the director of safe church ministry and now continues to serve churches in the areas of abuse prevention and response, should they be looking for help.
Norman Viss is a commissioned pastor with the CRC currently serving the small congregation of Trinity. Reached just a day after the announced arrest, he said he’s only beginning to think about how to process this with his congregation and in the community where he is active in several community organizations.
“It just feels like there is a shadow of horror over everything,” Viss said. He said two current members were in the church in 1975 and he’s reached out to them and to others in the congregation’s older generation. Viss began ministry at Trinity 40 years after Gretchen’s murder and learned about it fairly quickly as he became connected in the community. It was not something that was talked about every day but was very much in the background, he said. When the community began to be built up in the 1960s, “people had the idea that this was going to be a safe community to raise their kids,” but that was shattered. Viss said he had already reached out to Benckhuysen and might do so again, saying that as he learned new details, each one was a new horror.
The stated clerk for Classis Central California, where Zandstra’s ministerial credentials are held, had not heard about the arrest when The Banner contacted him. Larry Fryling said were classis to act it should be “based on the current supervising church's recommendation.” He said he would work with the current minister of Fairfield CRC and with classis on any necessary action.
The family of Gretchen Harrington issued a statement shared by the district attorney’s office. “With (the) announcement of an arrest, we are extremely hopeful that the person who is responsible for the heinous crime that was committed against our Gretchen will be held accountable,” it said. “It's difficult to express the emotions that we are feeling as we take one step closer to justice. … 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.”
Journalists at the news conference asked Stollsteimer about the potential for other victims in the years since this crime. Zandstra moved from the Marple area in 1976 and started a church in Dallas, Texas (disbanded in 2004), left there in 1983 to pastor a San Diego, Calif., church (closed in 2018) until 1990, and then was at Fairfield until 2005. Stollsteimer acknowledged Pennsylvania State Police have an open investigation and encouraged anyone with additional information about Zandstra’s activities to contact them.
In 1975 and 1976 The Banner published two submitted news briefs by David Zandstra about the disappearance of Gretchen Harrington and the finding of her remains. Given that they are documents from the time of the initial search and investigation, The Banner has reached out to share them with police.