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Marple’s Gretchen Harrington Tragedy: How Justice Was Brought Nearly Fifty Years Later

It’s unfortunate when a murder case remains unsolved. With fewer resources and clues, time is the determining factor that can lead to a case becoming cold.

In Gretchen Harrington’s case, her murder remained unsolved—at least until 48 years later, when a book detailing her death brought new interest and evidence to light.

The Gretchen Harrington Case:

On the morning of August 15, 1975, eight-year-old Gretchen Harrington disappeared. In Marple Township, Delaware County, news spread that the little girl was missing after she was on her way to vacation Bible school, less than a quarter mile from her home.

The summer Bible camp program occurred at two neighboring churches: The Trinity Church Chapel Christian Reformed Church and The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Marple. During the program, attendees would begin each day at the camp in Trinity.

Gretchen’s father, a pastor at Reformed, expressed concern when he realized his daughter did not show up at the church from Trinity. News of her disappearance spread throughout the camp that day, and reports were made to the Marple Police Department immediately.

Two months later, a jogger found her remains in the Ridley Creek State Park.

News of Gretchen Harrington’s kidnapping and murder shook the Marple Township community to its very core. Many parents of children near Gretchen’s age expressed their concerns and contemplated whether they should leave the Township. After much deliberation, most of the residents stayed since Marple Township was considered safer than the crime-riddled streets of Philadelphia.

Time passed, and no suspects had been found. Gretchen Harrington’s case would remain unsolved until recently.

Justice Takes Time: How a 2022 True Crime Book Renewed Interest In the Case

Mike Mathis and Joanna Falcone Sullivan grew up in Marple Township and distinctly recall the kidnapping and murder of Gretchen Harrington. The effects of the unsolved case changed the community dynamic, where parents watched closely over their children, worried that Gretchen’s murderer would take another victim.

In 2022, the authors released a true crime book, “Marple’s Gretchen Harrington Tragedy: Kidnapping, Murder and Innocence Lost in Suburban Philadelphia.” The pages included excerpts from old newspaper clippings, Marple police records, and interviews with Gretchen’s loved ones. The book also chronicles the sudden change in dynamics between parents and children. From a “free range” style of parenting, where children were free to visit their friends, to a dramatic shift of overprotective parents—it’s clear that Gretchen Harrington’s tragedy left a lasting impression on the Township at the time.

The case was still considered unsolved at the time of the book’s release. However, renewed interest and new evidence of the matter brought the attention of authorities nationwide.

On July 25, 2023, Delco officials announced the arrest of 83-year-old pastor David Zandstra. Zandstra, at the time of Harrington’s disappearance, was a pastor at Trinity. He was also a family friend of the Harrington and presided over the eight-year-old’s funeral.

After initially denying any involvement in Harrington’s case, Zandstra admitted to his crimes after being presented with new evidence.

Investigators say that after Gretchen Harrington walked up to Lawrence Road on her way to camp, Zandstra invited the child into his car.

Zandstra also confessed to asking the then-eight-year-old Harrington to take off her clothes. When she refused, he beat her to death before dumping her remains in a small Ridley Creek State Park area.

Zandstra is currently in jail in Georgia, where he is fighting his extradition to Pennsylvania, which could be lengthy. Since his confession, officials have been investigating his history of possible child sex abuse, as Zandstra was known to move around to churches.

The Aftermath of Zandstra’s Arrest:

Since Zandstra’s arrest, a renewed interest in unsolved cases was brought to light, especially regarding missing children. With modern technology helping forensics, a new surge of hope has rekindled for cases that were deemed unsolved in a time when sophisticated technology has yet to emerge. With better access to advanced technology and better processes, perhaps justice can also come for those victims who have yet to rest in peace.

Additionally, authors of the True Crime book have been told their hard work and diligence helped bring the case to closure. During the pandemic, both childhood friends used the time to gather evidence as they recalled their childhood in Marple. While the 2022 book is available on Amazon, updates to the book’s content may be on the horizon as everyone waits for Zandstra’s trial.

At the time of Zandstra’s arrest, the Harrington family released an official statement with renewed hope that Gretchen’s murderer would be held accountable. As they recalled Gretchen’s short yet impactful life to the people around her, they also thanked the Pennsylvania State Police for never giving up on their constant search for truth.

Some Key Takeaways:

  • Modern technology has come a long way since the 1970s. With a seemingly unsolvable case like Gretchen Harrington’s kidnapping and murder nearing its end, many have voiced the need for technology to be used for other cold cases. With AI technology growing more sophisticated for the day, it will only be a matter of time before such tech can be used to help solve cases effectively.
  • Although nearly fifty years have passed since the tragedy, the lives of many Marple residents have changed forever. What was then a carefree childhood shifted to one filled with dread and worry as a kidnapper and murderer could’ve run free. While the residents back then could not take back their childhood, they can at least find peace in knowing that the tragedy that affected them all is now nearing its closure.
  • Words can change the world. No matter how small a book may be or how saturated the market is, there will always be a book that will bring interest to anyone, even a small community. While the authors’ shared experience in Marple was unique to the residents at the time, their hard work and effort in preserving Gretchen’s memory has brought interest from many, who now wish for justice for other victims. In short, if you think your words or small book don’t matter—think again and write that book anyway.

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