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Defense begins case in Pa. pastor's murder trial

Published January 17. 2013 05:01PM

STROUDSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Two of the adult children of a former pastor who's charged with killing his second wife said Wednesday he was devastated when both of his wives died, rebutting prosecution witnesses who characterized him as calm, dry-eyed and unemotional in the face of tragedy.

Julie Campbell and Micah Schirmer testified Wednesday at their father's homicide trial in the Poconos. Prosecutors say Arthur Schirmer bludgeoned both women and tried to make it seem as if they'd died in accidents - Jewel Schirmer in a 1999 fall down the stairs and Betty Schirmer in a 2008 car crash.

Schirmer, 64, has pleaded not guilty, and the defense opened its case by calling his children, who have supported him since charges were filed against him more than two years ago.

Both said Schirmer was highly distraught and cried after their mother, Jewel Schirmer, his wife of more than 30 years, was hospitalized with a mortal brain injury.

"He said he wanted his wife back," Campbell testified.

Prosecutors presented evidence about Jewel Schirmer to illustrate the similarities in how they contend both of Schirmer's wives were killed. Schirmer is charged separately in her death in Lebanon County and awaits trial.

Campbell, who lives in Pennsylvania while her brother resides in California, said their father was shattered by his second wife's death, too.

Prosecutors contend Schirmer beat Betty Schirmer with a crowbar or similar object in the garage of the parsonage, then staged a car accident in a bid to conceal the crime.

Two Pocono Township police officers who responded to the crash and were called as defense witnesses testified they didn't initially suspect the July 15, 2008, collision was anything other than what it appeared.

Schirmer told them he was taking his wife to the emergency room for treatment of jaw pain when he swerved to avoid a deer and hit a guardrail.

It wasn't until months later that state police began a more thorough investigation of the crash - and jurors heard Wednesday from the woman who played a key, if unwitting, role in launching it.

Cynthia Moyer testified that she developed an "emotional" relationship with Schirmer while she was his part-time assistant at Reeders United Methodist Church. Her husband of 18 years found out and demanded they stay away from each other. A few weeks later, the husband entered Schirmer's office at the church, sat in the pastor's chair and killed himself.

While investigating the suicide, state police took another look at the car crash involving Betty Schirmer. Investigators found her blood in the garage of the parsonage and concluded that's where Schirmer bludgeoned her before loading her into their PT Cruiser and deliberately running into a guardrail at low speed. The car was lightly damaged, and the pastor escaped injury, but his wife suffered extensive head and brain injuries and died in a hospital.

Schirmer has explained the blood in the garage by contending that Betty Schirmer was injured and bled on the floor while helping move a pile of firewood several weeks before the crash.

But the former pastor himself seemed to cast doubt on his alibi during an interview at state police barracks, said Sgt. Mark Holtsmaster, one of the last witnesses called by prosecutors before they rested their case Wednesday morning.

Schirmer said he couldn't provide a "reasonable answer" why his wife would have been so seriously injured in a crash that barely dented the car, Holtsmaster said.

The investigator said he also pressed Schirmer about the wood pile.

"I did not believe it," Holtsmaster said. "It did not make sense to me."

Schirmer "agreed with me that it didn't make sense to him either," the trooper testified.

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