TANNERSVILLE, Pa. (CBS/AP) Retired Pennsylvania pastor Rev. Arthur Burton Schirmer has been ordered to stand trial on charges he killed his wife and staged a car accident to cover it up, a case that also has investigators re-examining his first wife's death.
The 62-year-old, from Reeders, Pa., will face charges of homicide and evidence tampering, a judge in Tannersville ruled Tuesday.
Authorities had initially concluded that 56-year-old Betty Schirmer died in July 2008 as a result of an early-morning car crash, but police reopened the case several months later after the suicide of a man whose wife was allegedly having an affair with Rev. Schirmer.
Police found Betty Schirmer's blood in the garage of the church parsonage, and forensics experts concluded from photos of the blood-soaked passenger seat and dashboard, taken by an auto damage appraiser, that she was bleeding before the crash. Prosecutors allege her husband - who spent nearly four decades as a pastor at several central and eastern Pennsylvania churches - hit her with some sort of object.
Investigators also are looking again at the 1999 death of Schirmer's first wife, Jewel, who was reported to have died in a fall down a flight of stairs.
At Schirmer's preliminary hearing Tuesday, a paramedic who responded to the car crash testified that she couldn't figure out why Betty Schirmer had blood covering her head and major bruising above her eye and on her leg, despite little damage to the car.
"We couldn't figure out what caused the head injury," Margo Warner said. "There wasn't enough damage to the inside of the vehicle."
Rev. Schirmer - then the pastor at Reeders United Methodist Church in the Poconos - told investigators he was driving Betty to the hospital so she could be treated for jaw pain. He told police a deer crossed their path, causing him to lose control of the car.
He was unhurt in the crash, but his wife suffered multiple skull and facial fractures and died at the hospital, according to court documents. No autopsy was ever performed and she was cremated.
Police Cpl. Douglas Shook, who reconstructed the accident, testified that the Schirmers' car was traveling under 25 mph when it crashed, not 45 mph as Arthur Schirmer had claimed. Although Schirmer said he had swerved to avoid a deer, Shook said that "there was no physical evidence of any avoidance maneuver in the roadway," nor sufficient damage to the car to have caused a fatal injury.Schirmer was pastor of another church, Bethany United Methodist in Lebanon, Pa., when his first wife died on April 24, 1999.
Jewel Schirmer, 50, died at Hershey Medical Center of a traumatic brain injury "from an alleged fall down a flight of stairs at a parsonage they shared," according to a police affidavit.
On Tuesday, District Judge Thomas Olsen refused to let prosecutors introduce evidence about Jewel Schirmer's death, calling it an issue for the trial court to decide.
Schirmer has denied harming either of his wives. His daughter by Jewel Schirmer recently told AP that the family is standing by him, though Jewel Schirmer's brother told the Pocono Record that he suspected when he saw his comatose sister in the hospital that "somebody gave this woman a beating."
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