LEBANON, Pa. (AP) — A retired Pennsylvania pastor insists both of his wives died accidentally. Prosecutors call him a liar – and a killer.
Already facing trial in the death of his second wife, Arthur Burton “A.B.” Schirmer is now charged with killing his first wife, too, after a grand jury concluded her injuries weren’t consistent with a fall down the stairs, prosecutors announced Friday.
Lebanon County District Attorney David Arnold declined to discuss a motive, but a grand jury report said that Schirmer, 64, had been unfaithful to his first wife, Jewel Schirmer, throughout their 31-year marriage. Court documents also said the couple had financial difficulties.
Schirmer’s attorney said his client denies involvement in either of his wives’ deaths, and released a statement from the three adult children of A.B. and Jewel Schirmer that said their father is innocent of all charges.
“We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the false accusations and allegations that have been waged against our father,” the statement said. “He is a compassionate and gentle man who would never harm anyone.”
Jewel Schirmer, 50, died at Hershey Medical Center of a traumatic brain injury from a supposed fall. Police and prosecutors reopened the probe after her husband came under investigation in the 2008 death of his second wife, Betty, in the Pocono Mountains. Prosecutors in that case say Schirmer killed his second wife, then staged a car accident to cover it up. He faces trial in January.
Jewel Schirmer’s brother, who had long suspected foul play, welcomed the decision to charge the retired pastor in her death.
“I’ve been waiting 13 years for this day to come,” said Jonathan Behney, appearing at a news conference Friday with Arnold. “It’s time for justice.”
The district attorney said he did not believe the initial 1999 investigation was botched, though he added no probe is completely free of mistakes.
“Looking back today on what they knew at the time, I wouldn’t feel comfortable criticizing the people who worked on it. I don’t think it would be fair to them,” he said. “We have different technologies available now that they didn’t have then.”
Technology that would help break the case.
Schirmer has long claimed he was out for a run on April 23, 1999, when he returned home to find his first wife’s body in a pool of blood at the bottom of the basement steps. Jewel suffered a fractured skull as well as injuries to her face, body, arms and legs, according to a police affidavit. But the coroner made no determination at that time as to whether her death was an accident or a homicide, and the original investigation was closed after a cardiologist who evaluated her heart for transplant concluded she had also suffered a heart attack.
Taking a fresh look at the case, investigators hired a biomechanical engineering firm to recreate Jewel Schirmer’s supposed fall down the stairs. The firm used a test dummy fitted with various instruments to collect data on the forces to which her tumbling body would have been subjected.
“We found the ‘crash dummy’ evidence to be particularly compelling, as it indicated to us that Jewel could not have suffered all of her injuries by accidentally falling down a flight of stairs,” the grand jury wrote.
Another cardiologist, meanwhile, reviewed Jewel’s medical records and concluded she had not suffered a heart attack, after all.
The grand jury cited medical testimony that revealed Schirmer likely used blunt objects to kill both his wives.
“We find it particularly disturbing and difficult to believe that both of A.B. Schirmer’s wives could have suffered such horrific injuries by accident. To the contrary, we believe probable cause exists to believe that neither woman died from an accident,” the report said.
The grand jury also noted Schirmer’s “arrogance” when he was subpoenaed to testify.
“Even upon a simple request to provide us with his name, Mr. Schirmer refused to do so,” the report said.At least one of Schirmer’s former congregants, Kathy Siegrist, said she felt betrayed by the man who’d led her spiritual life for 20 years, so much so that Siegrist no longer attends a church.
Siegrist – who called herself Jewel Schirmer’s best friend – said she had always considered A.B. Schirmer, who led Bethany United Methodist Church in Lebanon, to be gentle and kind. But there were hints of a darker side, flashes of anger that Siegrist said she never saw but that her then-husband used to talk about.
“The moment this happened, he told me he thinks A.B. killed her,” Siegrist said Friday.
Her former husband wasn’t the only one who had suspicions.
Behney, Jewel Schirmer’s brother, told police two days after her sister’s death that “it was his opinion that her head was smashed in by someone,” a police affidavit said. “He added that Arthur had been cheating on his sister for some time and has had several extramarital affairs with other women.”
But Schirmer’s attorney, James Swetz, said his client will be vindicated.
“Our belief, and what we intend to show in both of these incidents, is that the initial reports were correct, that the Monroe County death was an accident and in Lebanon County there was evidence of heart attack” preceding a fall, Swetz said.
Schirmer’s former flock at Bethany was shocked and upset two years ago when he was first charged with homicide. Friday’s charges come as less of a surprise, said the current pastor, the Rev. Nelson Alleman, who arrived at Bethany in 2010.
Alleman said he plans to speak briefly about it during worship Sunday, and will tell the congregation: “We’re a people of grace, we’re a people of mercy, we’re a people of forgiveness, and we also serve a God of justice and we are praying for justice, wherever that may be in this case.”