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'Sinister minister' convicted of murder in wife's death

January 23, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • In this February 2012 photo, retired Pennsylvania pastor Arthur Schirmer leaves court after a pretrial hearing in his murder case in Stroudsburg, Pa.
In this February 2012 photo, retired Pennsylvania pastor Arthur Schirmer… (David Kidwell / Associated…)

An ex-pastor dubbed the "sinister minister" by prosecutors who say he murdered both of his wives was convicted of one killing and faces a second trial in March in connection with the second woman's death.

A jury in Stroudsburg, Pa., took about 90 minutes Tuesday to convict Arthur Schirmer, whose life reads like the script of a made-for-TV movie, complete with marriages ending under seemingly tragic circumstances, a suicide, infidelity, and now a life behind bars. The white-haired 64-year-old, who was forced to resign as a minister in the United Methodist Church in 2008, said nothing as the jury pronounced him guilty of first-degree murder and evidence tampering in Betty Jean Schirmer's 2008 death.

Schirmer, who pleaded innocent, was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. He was scheduled to be sentenced in March, the same month he is due to go on trial in another Pennsylvania county for the 1999 murder of his first wife, Jewel.

"We are deeply grieved when someone in a trusted pastoral position betrays that trust," said a statement from Bishop Peggy A. Johnson on the website of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Schirmer had become a pastor in the church in 1970 and had most recently served at the Reeders United Methodist Church in Reeders, Pa., a town of about 1,100 people 90 miles west of New York City. "We are deeply grieved by Betty Jean’s tragic death, as well as the death of Jewel Schirmer, Mr. Schirmer’s first wife," said Johnson's statement, which was posted after Schirmer's conviction.

For years, to his friends, relatives and congregants, it seemed Schirmer had no luck in love as first one wife and then another died suddenly and horribly. Jewel Schirmer fell down the stairs and was killed while vacuuming their home in 1999, he said. Nine years later, Betty died after a car crash. Schirmer told police he had been driving when he swerved to avoid a deer and hit a guardrail.

She was cremated at her husband's request, and the case may never have made it to court were it not for the suicide of a man inside Schirmer's office at the Reeders church, where Schirmer was pastor from 2001 to 2008. The man killed himself in October 2008, three months after Betty's death, after learning that his wife, the church secretary, was having an affair with Schirmer.

Schirmer was forced to leave the church and to surrender his ministerial credentials. Investigators then began looking again at the car crash that had killed Betty, which they noted had done little damage to the car and had not injured Arthur Schirmer. Forensics experts who re-created the crash concluded it could not have caused the massive head trauma that Betty had suffered. Investigators also found blood stains at the Reeders parsonage where the Schirmers lived, and DNA testing showed it was Betty Schirmer's.

In 2010, prosecutors accused Schirmer of beating Betty with a crowbar and then putting her into their car and staging the crash. The investigation into Betty's death led to another look into Jewel's death. Authorities last year declared her death a homicide as well and charged Schirmer, whom prosecutors described as a cheating husband who preferred killing his wives to divorcing them.

Among other things, officials investigating Jewel Schirmer's death noted an autopsy report which said she had suffered 14 blows to her head and face -- injuries very similar to those suffered by Betty Schirmer. At the time of Jewel's death, Shirmer was the pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in Lebanon, Pa., a post he gave up when he moved to Reeders to become the pastor there.

According to the Pocono Record, relatives of Betty Jean Schirmer "let out joyful cries and hugged each other" when the jury announced its verdict. It said Arthur Schirmer's relatives and his girlfriend -- the widow of the man whose suicide in 2008 led to the prosecution -- wept.

Schirmer, who faces a mandatory life sentence without parole, did not comment as he was led to his jail cell past reporters waiting in the courthouse hallway.

Betty Jean Schirmer's son, Nate Novack, said he was relieved. "Today she can finally rest in peace. We all miss her greatly," he said.

Schirmer's attorney, Brandon Reish, vowed to appeal. He said the judge should not have allowed the jury to hear details of the death of Schirmer's first wife, something he said clearly swayed them. "That issue likely will be preserved for appeal. The fact that the jury took such a short time to deliberate indicates to me that they were considering something improper they shouldn't have been considering," said Reish.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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