Pa. ex-pastor ordered to stand trial on charges he killed wife, staged cover-up car crash

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pa. ex-pastor to stand trial in wife’s ‘08 death

TANNERSVILLE, Pa. — A retired Pennsylvania pastor was ordered Tuesday to stand trial on charges he killed his wife and staged a car accident to cover it up, a case that has investigators re-examining his first wife’s death.

Arthur Burton “A.B.” Schirmer, 62, of Reeders, Pa., should face trial on charges of homicide and evidence tampering, a judge in Tannersville ruled.

Authorities had initially concluded that 56-year-old Betty Schirmer died in July 2008 as a result of an early-morning car crash, but police reopened the case several months later after the suicide of a man whose wife was allegedly having an affair with A.B. Schirmer.

Police found Betty Schirmer’s blood in the garage of the church parsonage, and forensics experts concluded from photos taken by an auto damage appraiser of the blood-soaked passenger seat and dashboard that she was bleeding before the crash. Prosecutors allege her husband — who spent nearly four decades as a pastor at several central and eastern Pennsylvania churches — hit her with some sort of object.

Investigators also are looking again at the 1999 death of Schirmer’s first wife, Jewel, who was reported to have died in a fall down a flight of stairs.

At Schirmer’s preliminary hearing Tuesday, a paramedic who responded to the car crash testified that she couldn’t figure out why Betty Schirmer had blood covering her head and major bruising above her eye and on her leg, despite little damage to the car.

“We couldn’t figure out what caused the head injury,” Margo Warner said. “There wasn’t enough damage to the inside of the vehicle.”

A.B. Schirmer — then the pastor at Reeders United Methodist Church in the Poconos — told investigators he was driving Betty to the hospital so she could be treated for jaw pain. He told police a deer crossed their path, causing him to lose control of the car.

He was unhurt in the crash, but his wife suffered multiple skull and facial fractures and died at the hospital, according to court documents. No autopsy was ever performed and she was cremated.

Police Cpl. Douglas Shook, who reconstructed the accident, testified that the Schirmers’ car was traveling under 25 mph when it crashed, not 45 mph as A.B. Schirmer had claimed. Although Schirmer said he had swerved to avoid a deer, Shook said that “there was no physical evidence of any avoidance maneuver in the roadway,” nor sufficient damage to the car to have caused a fatal injury.

State police confronted Schirmer several months after the crash, interviewing him for more than six hours.

The pastor told investigators that he held his unresponsive wife in his arms in an attempt to wake her up, but never called 911 because “he didn’t think of it,” testified Trooper William Maynard, who interviewed Schirmer.

Asked how Betty Schirmer’s blood got in the garage, Schirmer told police that he and Betty were moving firewood when the pile fell over, cutting them both and causing her to bleed.

But state police Trooper Phil Barletta, a forensics specialist, agreed with prosecutor Michael Mancuso that the evidence indicated a “seamless trail of blood” from the parsonage floor to the passenger seat of the car.

Schirmer was pastor of another church, Bethany United Methodist in Lebanon, Pa., when his first wife died on April 24, 1999.

Jewel Schirmer, 50, died at Hershey Medical Center of a traumatic brain injury “from an alleged fall down a flight of stairs at a parsonage they shared,” according to a police affidavit.

On Tuesday, District Judge Thomas Olsen refused to let prosecutors introduce evidence about Jewel Schirmer’s death, calling it an issue for the trial court to decide.

Dr. Wayne Ross, a forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy on Jewel, wrote a letter to prosecutors and also testified before a grand jury that Jewel’s injuries were inconsistent with a fall down stairs.

He said her skull fracture required 750 pounds of force — an injury that could have been made by a baseball bat or crowbar. There were 14 impacts to her head and face as well as “pervasive trauma” to her body, including what Ross said he believed to be a hand print on her upper extremities.

Mancuso cited Ross’s report as evidence of “prior bad acts” that would discredit the defense claim that Betty Schirmer’s death was an accident.

Defense attorney James Swetz objected, saying, “Whatever happened to Jewel Schirmer is irrelevant to what we’re doing today. … This is not an inquiry into the death of Jewel Schirmer.”

Schirmer has denied harming either of his wives. His daughter by Jewel Schirmer recently told AP that the family is standing by him, though Jewel Schirmer’s brother told the Pocono Record that he suspected when he saw his comatose sister in the hospital that “somebody gave this woman a beating.”

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