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Minister held for trial in wife's death

  • Ron Gower/TIMES NEWS Arthur (A.B.) Schirmer, a former pastor of Reeders United Methodist Church in Monroe County, is led to his preliminary hearing Tuesday by police officers. About 75 people attended the hearing, held in the Pocono Township…
    Ron Gower/TIMES NEWS Arthur (A.B.) Schirmer, a former pastor of Reeders United Methodist Church in Monroe County, is led to his preliminary hearing Tuesday by police officers. About 75 people attended the hearing, held in the Pocono Township Ambulance Garage. Charges of criminal homicide and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence were bound over to Monroe County Court.
Published September 29. 2010 05:00PM

A former Methodist minister will have to stand trial on charges that he killed his wife. It is alleged he beat her, placed her in a car, then staged an accident. She died the following day.

Rev. Arthur Burton (A.B.) Schirmer, 62, of Reeders, is charged with criminal homicide and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence. He also is suspected of killing his first wife in Lebanon County back in April 1999. Originally it was reported she fell down a flight of stairs.

At Tuesday's hearing, a letter to prosecutors said that a skull fracture she had received could have been made by a baseball bat or crowbar, with 14 impacts to her head and face. The letter was from a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on the first wife.

It is not known if the information about the first wife will be allowed as evidence in the most recent case involving his second wife, Betty Schirmer, who died in July 2008. District Judge Thomas E. Olsen of Tannersville said he wouldn't allow the evidence, stating it will be up to a court to decide.

A hearing for Schirmer on the death of his second wife, Betty, was held Tuesday in Pocono Township Ambulance Building in Tannersville. About 75 people attended the hearing, including former parishioners of Rev. Burton, who had been pastor of Reeders United Methodist Church when the death of his wife occurred.

A statement from the Eastern Pa. Conference of the Methodist Church says Rev. Schirmer withdrew from the church on Nov. 14, 2008 "under complaint, and surrendered his ministerial credentials."

Olsen, with thin, light brown hair except for being gray around the temples, wore a blue prison uniform and sat expressionless during the hearing.

One of the people to testify was Nathaniel Novack of Jonestown, Lebanon County, the only son of Betty Schirmer and a stepson of Arthur. He referred to the defendant during his testimony as "A.B."

He said his wife received a call early in the morning on July 15 to inform him of an accident involving his mother. He was out of town on a business trip at the time.

Novack testified he went to the hospital and saw his mother on life-support. He said A.B. made the decision to disconnect the life-support.

Novack said he wanted some answers so he spoke with A.B., who told him he was traveling down the road (Route 715) and swerved to avoid a deer. Novack testified that A.B. told him when the deer ran out, Betty had been adjusting her seat belt.

It was difficult for audience members to hear the testimony in the ambulance garage because there were no microphones and heavy rain periodically pounded on the flat roof.

Novack said he asked A.B. for some mementos and was given a box containing cards and photos.

There was a birthday card with a Post-it note on it, said Novack. It was signed, "Love, Bud," which, Novack said, "apparently was A.B."

He said A.B. had written on the note, "For all the pain I caused you, I'm sorry. Someday you'll be happy again. Free to soar. Free to live."

Under cross examination, he said Betty was "a health nut. She loved walking."

He added, "My understanding is she was very healthy. She liked to run. She liked to exercise."

Cpl. Douglas Shook, who reconstructed the accident, testified that he was asked to review the accident that Schirmer and his wife were involved.

He told the court that he feels Burton was not traveling 45 miles per hour as he had told the investigating township officer, but probably was traveling under 25 mph.

The state trooper added there was no damage to the front of Burton's car; just to the front bottom of the vehicle.

He also testified that not only did the air bags not deploy, but the computers inside them didn't record any information as they are set up to do when a deployment event occurs.

Testimony also came from Margo Warner, a paramedic who had responded to the Schirmer accident. "There was very little damage to the vehicle," she observed.

Warner said Betty Schirmer was unconscious and there was a lot of blood on the right side of her. Arthur was still in the driver's seat and answered questions, such as whether she was allergic to medications.

She testified that Betty's hair had a lot of matted blood and the right side of her skull was soft, indicating a skull fracture.

"We couldn't figure out what caused that head injury," she said.

There was also bruising over the left eye and a bruise on the left biceps area.

Christopher Morris, a professional damage appraiser, told the court about the saturation of blood to the passenger seat of the Schirmer vehicle.

He said the air bags were not deployed in the accident.

Schirmer had been the pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Lebanon when his first wife, Jewel, died on April 24, 1999.

Jewel died from an alleged fall down a pair of stairs at the parsonage, according to police.

Defense Attorney James Swetz objected to the letter from the forensic pathologist, stating, "Whatever happened to Jewel Schirmer is irrelevant to what we're doing today."

Although it wasn't brought up at the hearing, the police report on the death of Betty states blood was located in the garage area at the church parsonage, which was determined to be the victim's.

Suspicion about Betty's death intensified after a suicide occurred at Reeders United Methodist Church on Oct. 29, 2008. Joseph Musante, who killed himself in Rev. Burton's office, said the pastor was having an affair with his wife, Cynthia Musante. Cynthia Musante was administrative assistant at the church.

Just recently, on her Facebook page, Cynthia had a photo of her and Arthur Burton Schirmer.

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