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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pastor Arthur Burton Schirmer: The Singing Minister of Death

     In 1968, Arthur Burton "A.B." Schirmer, an ordained Methodist minister, married his first wife Jewel whom he met while they were 20-year-old students at Messiah College in southeast central Pennsylvania. In the late 1970s, as pastor of the Bainbridge and Marietta United Methodist Churches in southeastern Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, AB Schirmer and his wife Jewel sang duets at area churches and camp meetings. Later his son and two daughters joined the gospel group billed as the "Singing Schirmer Family."

     In 1978, A.B. and his family moved to the town of Lebanon in southeast central Pennsylvania where he had been named pastor of the Bethany United Methodist Church (UMC). He and his wife Jewel lived in the church parsonage.

     On April 24, 1999, the 50-year-old Bethany church pastor called 911 at 2:15 in the afternoon to report that when he returned to the parsonage after a jog, he found his wife Jewel lying unconscious at the foot of the basement stairs. Jewel Schirmer died the next day at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

     The forensic pathologist with the Lebanon County Coroner's Office who performed the autopsy noted that the deceased woman had, wrapped around one leg, an electrical cord from a shopping vac. She was also barefoot. The pastor's wife had suffered a fractured skull, and possessed numerous bruises on her upper body. The coroner's office reported that Jewel Schirmer had died from a traumatic brain injury, and ruled her manner of death as "undetermined." While her obituaries stated that she had died a "natural death," from falling down a flight of stairs (actually an accidental death), the coroner's office listed Jewel Schirmer's demise as undetermined because her injuries seemed too severe to have been caused by a fall down a flight of steps. Because his wife's death was not ruled a homicide, there was no police investigation into the incident, and no criminal charges filed against the singing minister.

     In 2001, the year he became pastor of the United Methodist Church in Reeders, an eastern Pennsylvania town in Monroe County, A.B. Schirmer married his second wife, 49-year-old Betty Jean Shertzer, a music teacher.

     On July 15, 2008, motorists driving along State Route 715, a wooded, two-lane highway not far from Reeders, saw a PT Cruiser sitting on the shoulder of the road next to a guardrail. Betty Schirmer was sitting in the front passenger's seat which was soaked in blood. She was bleeding from the head and unconscious. The passersby noticed severe bruising on the right side of her face. The vehicle showed only minor damage, and the pastor was uninjured. Although he possessed a cellphone, one of the motorists called 911.

     The next day, at the Lehigh Valley Hospital, Betty Jean Schirmer died of "sustained multiple skull and facial fractures," and "brain injury." At the pastor's request, his second wife's body was cremated before it could be autopsied.

     To the officer investigating the supposed traffic accident, the pastor said he had been driving his wife to the hospital after she complained of a pain in her jaw. While traveling between 45 and 55 MPH, he lost control of the car after oversteering to avoid a deer. The vehicle swerved back and forth across the road before slamming into the guardrail. Although Betty Schirmer's head injuries seemed out of proportion to the damage to the car, the authorities did not investigate the 56-year-old woman's death as a possible homicide. The fact the dead woman's husband was a Methodist minister probably had a lot to do with that decision. Had the authorities known about the circumstances surrounding the death of AB's first wife, Jewel, they might have looked closer into Betty Schirmer's suspicious demise.

     On October 29, 2008, sudden, violent death raised its ugly head again in Pastor Schirmer's life. On that day, Joseph Musante, the husband of the pastor's personal assistant, was found dead in the church office behind the pastor's desk. Mr. Musante had been shot in the head in an apparent suicide. Investigators looking into the case were curious to know why this active member of the Reeders UMC congregation had taken his own life in the pastor's office. In pursuing that lead, investigators learned that Pastor Schirmer was having an affair with the dead man's wife, Cynthia.

     A.B. Schirmer's proximity to the untimely, violent deaths of two wives, and the husband of his personal assistant and lover, kickstarted a criminal investigation of his second wife Betty's July 2008 death. The fact the pastor was having an affair at the time of the so-called fatal traffic accident on State Route 715, added what had been missing until now: a motive for murder. Pursuant to the homicide investigation, the police conducted a search of Schirmer's church living quarters and found incriminating evidence: massive blood stains from Betty Schirmer, stains someone had tried to clean-up.

     The discovery of blood stains in the Reeders Church parsonage provided homicide investigators with a plausible narrative of Betty Jean's death: the pastor had bludgeoned her in the parsonage, put her bleeding body into the PT Cruiser, staged the traffic accident on the remote highway, then sat in the car with his unconscious wife waiting for her to die. Before she passed away, passing motorists came along, and one of them called 911. The next day she died, and shortly after that, was cremated without an autopsy. With the death of the pastor's personal assistant's husband three months later, the path had been cleared for the pastor's third marriage to Cynthia.

     After A.B. Schirmer became a prime murder suspect in this second wife's death, the pastor left the ministry. He joined a three-person evangelical singing group called "Beroean." (Cases like this remind me of why I prefer nonfiction over crime fiction. No one would believe a detective novel with this plot.)

     To bolster their case that this man of God had murdered his second wife, the police consulted an expert in traffic accident investigation. According to this expert, the damage to Schirmer's PT Cruiser suggested that when he hit the guardrail, he was only traveling 25 MPH, a speed that would not have resulted in Betty Schirmer's severe head trauma and brain damage.

     In July 2010, the county coroner, a forensic pathologist named Dr. Samuel Land, ruled Betty Schirmer's manner of death a homicide. This opened the door to a criminal prosecution.

     Former pastor A. B. Schirmer, on September 13, 2010, in Tannersville, Pennsylvania, was taken into custody by the Pennsylvania State Police. He was charged with the murder of his second wife Betty, and with the tampering of homicide evidence. At the time of his arrest, the gospel singer was engaged to be married for the third time. The ex-pastor would await his upcoming murder trial in the Monroe County Correctional Facility where he was incarcerated without bail.

     On September 17, 2010, the Monroe County prosecutor convened a grand jury to look into the deaths of Schirmer's two wives. Dr. Wayne Ross, the forensic pathologist for Lancaster County, had studied photographs and other material pertaining to the 1999 death of Jewel Schirmer in the Lebanon UMC parsonage. Dr. Ross informed the grand jurors that the skull fracture Jewel had supposedly incurred from a fall down the basement steps would have required at least 750 pounds of pressure, a force way out of proportion to an accidental spill of this nature. Moreover, the forensic pathologist testified that the cuts to the victim's face were "highly suspicious, and could have been caused by an object striking her head. There were 14 separate impact injuries to her head and face," Dr. Ross said, "as well as numerous abrasions and contusions throughout her upper body and arms." According to Dr. Ross, one of the bruises was in the shape of a handprint.

     Based on Dr. Ross' testimony, and other evidence presented at the Monroe County Grand Jury session, Dauphin County Chief Deputy Coroner Lisa Potteiger changed Jewel Schirmer's manner of death from "undetermined" to "homicide."

     In March 2013, a Monroe County Judge, after a jury found Schirmer guilty of first degree murder, sentenced him to life in prison. 

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