Prosecutors lay out evidence against Pa. pastor charged with killing wife, staging car crash

By Michael Rubinkam, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pa. pastor charged in wife’s ‘08 death faces judge

TANNERSVILLE, Pa. — A paramedic who responded to a car crash involving a pastor and his wife testified Tuesday that she couldn’t figure out why the woman had head and body injuries despite there being little damage to the vehicle.

Betty Schirmer’s death was initially ruled an accident, but police reopened the case after the November 2008 suicide of a man whose wife was having an affair with her husband.

Arthur Burton “A.B.” Schirmer is accused of killing her and staging the accident to cover it up. Authorities also are re-examining the 1999 death of Schirmer’s first wife, Jewel, who was reported to have died in a fall down a flight of stairs.

The testimony from paramedic Margo Warner came at a hearing in Tannersville that will decide if the now-retired pastor should stand trial on murder and other charges.

Warner said she was at the scene of the early morning crash in eastern Pennsylvania on July 15, 2008, and that Betty Schirmer had blood covering her head and major bruising above her eye and on her leg.

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

At the time of the crash, 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.

A.B. Schirmer was unhurt in the crash and there was minimal damage to the car, but his wife suffered multiple skull and facial fractures and died at the hospital, according to court documents.

Betty’s son Nathaniel Novack testified Tuesday that A.B. Schirmer, his stepfather, gave him a box of his mother’s personal effects following her death. He found a birthday card from Schirmer to his mother with a note on the back in his stepfather’s handwriting.

The note said, in part, “For all the pain I have caused you, I’m sorry. I hope someday you will be free to be happy again.”

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 would not 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 Monroe County grand jury that Jewel’s injuries were inconsistent with a fall down stairs.

He said her skull fracture required 750 pounds of force, which 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 is believed to be a hand print on her upper extremities, Ross said.

Prosecutor Michael Mancuso cited Ross’s report as evidence of “prior bad acts” to 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.”

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