STROUDSBURG, Pa. - A prosecutor suggested Tuesday that a philandering pastor killed both of his wives because he was unhappy with his sex life, but the former clergyman's attorney said that his client's adultery doesn't make him a murderer.
Prosecutor Michael Mancuso told a jury in Monroe County that Arthur Schirmer, 64, repeatedly hit his second wife in the head with a heavy metal object in 2008, then staged a car accident in a bid to cover it up.
He said the plot unraveled a few months later when a member of the congregation committed suicide in the church office after learning that Schirmer was in a relationship with the congregant's wife, the church secretary.
Emails and other evidence pulled from Schirmer's computers indicate the former Methodist pastor's marriage to Betty Schirmer was "very, very troubled," Mancuso said, telling jurors about one email in which the pastor complained his menopausal wife had lost "all interest in sex," and that they hadn't been together sexually in two years.
The retired pastor is charged separately in Lebanon County with killing his first wife, Jewel Schirmer, in 1999. Mancuso told the jury about that case, too, saying there are similarities in how the women were killed and that Schirmer had cheated on Jewel, too.
Schirmer has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
His attorney, Brandon Reish, acknowledged his client's philandering ways, including the fact that Schirmer had a sexual encounter with a longtime mistress just weeks after his wife's death. But he said in his opening statement that just because Schirmer cheated on his wives doesn't mean he killed them.
"You can't take bad behavior, bad science and church gossip and turn them into a murder, let alone two," Reish said.
The trial is expected to focus in part on the car crash that Schirmer blames for his wife's death.
Schirmer told investigators he was driving his wife to the hospital at 1:50 a.m. on July 15, 2008, so she could be treated for a jaw pain disorder called TMJ. He told police a deer crossed their path, causing him to lose control of their PT Cruiser. A.B. Schirmer was unhurt in the crash and there was minimal damage to the car, but his wife, who he said wasn't wearing a seat belt, suffered multiple skull and facial fractures and died at the hospital.
Mancuso said police reopened their investigation into the crash after the suicide in Schirmer's office at Reeders United Methodist Church. He said accident reconstruction and medical experts concluded that Schirmer was only driving between 18-22 mph when he hit the guard rail, not 55 as he had initially claimed, and that Betty Schirmer's extensive injuries could not have been caused by the crash.
The crash "was not only survivable," said Mancuso, "She should have walked away."
Police also found the victim's blood in the garage of the church parsonage, along with evidence that someone had tried to clean it up, Mancuso said.
Two of the first prosecution witnesses were emergency medical personnel who testified about the bloody car-crash scene. Paramedic Margo Warner said that with the car so lightly damaged, she never expected to find a patient with the kind of severe head and brain trauma suffered by Betty Schirmer.
"I'm looking around the inside of the car for what did this," Warner said.
She said she didn't find a good answer.
Allentown, PA 18102