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 including 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 having an affair with A.B. Schirmer.
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."
State police Trooper William Maynard, who interviewed Schirmer after crash, testified that the pastor reported holding Betty and trying to wake her for about five minutes before a bystander called 911.
When asked why Schirmer himself didn't call 911 right away, "he indicated he didn't think of it," Maynard said.
Betty's son Nathaniel Novack also testified Tuesday, saying that A.B. Schirmer, his stepfather, gave him a box of his mother's personal effects following her death.
He said 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 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."
Schirmer has denied harming either of his wives. His daughter by Jewel Schirmer has said the family is standing by him.