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Former pastor arrested in 1975 for murdering a young girl walking to his church

On. On August 15, 1975, 8-year-old Gretchen Harrington was walking to Bible camp in a township outside of Philadelphia when she was kidnapped and murdered.

On Monday, authorities said a man who had been a pastor at one of the camp’s host churches has been arrested and charged with Harrington’s murder.

The Delaware County District Attorney said 83-year-old David Zandstra recently confessed after being presented with new evidence, including a witness’ allegations that the former pastor had groped her and may have attempted to kidnap another local girl.

Gretchen Harrington. (Delaware County District Attorney)

A law firm representing Zandstra said it was aware of the allegations but would not comment, according to NBC Philadelphia.

The charges against him include murder; first, second and third degree murder; kidnapping; and possession of a crime instrument. The alleged crimes took place in Marple Township, about 10 miles west of Philadelphia.

The new witness, who was not identified, provided a diary, prosecutors said. In it, she penned a note a month after Harrington went missing speculating that Zandstra may have been responsible for two attempts to kidnap another girl, prosecutors said in the Zandstra indictment.

“Guess?” the witness is quoted in a note dated September 15, 1975. “A man tried to kidnap Holly twice! It’s a secret I can’t tell anyone, but I think he’s the one who kidnapped Gretchen. I think it was Mr. Z.”

She also said she was groped by the suspect during a sleepover at his house seven days before Harrington went missing, according to the indictment. The witness, then 10 years old, was best friends with one of Zandstra’s daughters.

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Talking to the suspect

On July 17, officials interviewed Zandstra near his Georgia home, according to the complaint and Delaware County DA spokesman Margie McAboy.

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He volunteered to speak, state police officer Eugene Tray said at Monday’s news conference, and was read Miranda rights.

Faced with the new witness information, Tray said, Zandstra confessed.

“He was relieved,” the trooper said. “It was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders.”

Reformed Presbyterian Church.  (Delaware County District Attorney's Office)

Reformed Presbyterian Church. (Delaware County District Attorney)

Zandstra said he was driving on August 15, 1975, when he came across Harrington as he walked to the Bible camp hosted by his congregation, Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reform Church, the indictment alleges.

Prosecutors said he routinely picked up children to take them to the camp in the mid-morning. Harrington was best friends with another daughter in the Zandstra household, so he was a familiar face, they said in the complaint.

Prosecutors said she was last seen two blocks from home.

Zandstra told officers he picked up Harrington as she was walking to the church and drove her to the nearby woods, where he parked. She asked him to take her home, but he ordered her to take off her clothes. When she refused to undress, he hit her on the head, he said, and she never regained consciousness, the filing said.

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Lawrence gone.  (Delaware County District Attorney's Office)

Lawrence gone. (Delaware County District Attorney)

The suspect left her body, described in the indictment as “half-naked,” in the woods and covered it with foliage, the indictment said.

Harrington’s father was a pastor at an adjoining church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, where the second half of the daily summer Bible camp took place, prosecutors said.

The victim usually accompanied her two sisters, but they stayed home that day because her mother had just given birth, prosecutors said. Harrington’s father encouraged her to walk alone because she had a perfect attendance record, they said.

When she failed to show up at the Reformed Presbyterian Church by 11 a.m., Harrington’s father drove off in an attempt to find her along adjacent Lawrence Road, the complaint said. When the clock showed her 23 minutes late, he called the police, the filing states.

Special details

He provided a description and noted that Harrington was 3 feet 6 inches, 50 pounds, with blonde pigtails, according to the complaint. Interviewed days later, Zandstra described specific details about the girl’s shorts, including that they had a zipper and snap button down the front, but no visible buttons, the complaint said.

The details were unusual for two reasons, prosecutors argued: The girl never made it to the Bible camp, so he wouldn’t have seen her there; and the shorts were unique, handmade by the girl’s mother.

On October 14, 1975, Harrington’s remains were discovered in a state park in nearby Edgmont Township.

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Cause and manner of death was murder by at least two blows to the head, the indictment said.

Harrington’s relatives said they are grateful to police and prosecutors.

“The kidnapping and murder of Gretchen has changed our family forever and we miss her every day,” the family said in a statement.

Marple Township police chief Graeff Brandon said Harrington’s time on Earth was “a life unfulfilled…because of sheer evil and depravity.”

He said at Monday’s press conference that her murder marked a shift for a suburb that had once felt relatively innocent and crime-free.

“It has transformed this community,” said the chief. “It was Anytown, USA”

More victims?

Prosecutors said Zandstra left the church and left the area, settling first in Plano, Texas, and then Georgia, where he served a sixth day without bail in the Cobb County Adult Detention Facility on Monday, according to prosecutors and inmates.

Authorities have expressed concern that there may be more casualties and have asked anyone with information to get in touch. State police were in the process of comparing his DNA to other cold or outstanding cases, the district attorney’s office said in a statement Monday.

Prosecutors said Zandstra has refused to waive extradition to Pennsylvania, which will prolong but likely not stop the trial.

On Monday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said the 48-year-old case is closed.

“We’re going to bring him here to Delaware County, we’re going to try him, we’re going to convict him and he’s going to die in jail,” he said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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