TANNERSVILLE, Pa. – A retired Pennsylvania pastor whose first wife died under suspicious circumstances more than 11 years ago was charged Monday with killing his second wife and staging a car accident to cover it up. The accusations have prompted police to re-examine the first wife's death.
Arthur Burton Schirmer, 62, was arraigned Monday in Tannersville on criminal homicide and evidence-tampering charges in the 2008 death of his 56-year-old wife, Betty. He did not enter a plea and was jailed without bail.
Schirmer's attorney said his client denies foul play was involved in either of the deaths. Authorities "seem to have resurrected a prior tragedy to prosecute Mr. Schirmer for a current tragedy," Brandon Reish told The Associated Press.
Betty Schirmer's death was initially ruled an accident, but police said they reopened the investigation after the November 2008 suicide of a man whose wife was having an affair with Arthur Schirmer.
Police concluded Betty Schirmer was already injured before the car crash. Investigators said they later found her blood in the garage of the Reeders United Methodist Church parsonage, in the Poconos, where the couple lived.
Police in Lebanon County said Monday they are now 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.
According to a police affidavit supporting charges in Betty Schirmer's death, Arthur Schirmer told investigators he was driving her to the hospital at 1:50 a.m. on July 15, 2008, so she could be treated for jaw pain. He told police a deer crossed their path, causing him to lose control of the car.
Arthur 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.
In a column published in the Pocono Record in October 2008, Schirmer wrote, "About three months ago my wife, Betty, died in an automobile accident. She was my best friend. I miss her. The congregation, Reeders United Methodist Church, misses her."
But police took a second look in November 2008 following a suicide at Reeders United Methodist, where Schirmer was pastor at the time. Authorities determined that Schirmer had been having an affair with his secretary, the suicidal man's wife.
Police experts also determined Schirmer's car was only going about 20 mph when it crashed and that Betty Schirmer was already bleeding.
A forensic pathologist and the Lehigh County coroner reviewed the case and "confirmed that the severe injuries sustained by the victim would not have been a result of this low-speed crash," state police said in a news release.
Police said they also found the victim's blood in the garage of the church parsonage — and that someone had tried to clean it up.
Reish, Schirmer's attorney, said his client gave police a detailed explanation for Betty Schirmer's injuries, and that Schirmer also explained the presence of his wife's blood in the garage. Reish declined to reveal how his client said the blood got there.
Schirmer was pastor of another church, Bethany United Methodist in Lebanon, Pa., when his first wife died on April 24, 1999.
Jewel Schirmer, 50, Schirmer's wife of 30 years, died at Hershey Medical Center from a traumatic brain injury, "from an alleged fall down a flight of stairs at a parsonage they shared," according to the police affidavit.
Schirmer reported discovering his first wife's body in a pool of blood at the bottom of the basement steps, according to the affidavit. She suffered a fractured skull as well as injuries to her face, upper body and arms, the affidavit said.
The manner of her death remains undetermined.
The Lebanon County district attorney's office announced in a statement Monday that it was reopening the investigation into Jewel Schirmer's death "as a result of new information that has been received by this office."
The charges in Betty Schirmer's death were filed after an investigation by a Monroe County grand jury.
Reish questioned why prosecutors included information about Jewel Schirmer in an affidavit supporting the homicide charges.
"There is a concern about a rush to judgment," Reish said. "I think the commonwealth wants that rush to judgment because that's the only reason they would have mentioned the first wife in an affidavit that has nothing to do with that. This is about a tragic (car) accident that occurred in Monroe County."
Monroe County prosecutors were in court Monday and not immediately available for comment.
In March 2009, after his retirement from Reeders United Methodist Church, Arthur Schirmer joined a three-man Christian music ministry called Beroean, according to the group's website. The site listed upcoming gigs at churches in Pennsylvania and New York.
The site said Schirmer spent 38 years as a pastor.
Associated Press Writer Randy Pennell in Philadelphia contributed to this story.