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Ex-pastor arrested in wife's death, under scrutiny in another's

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Ex-pastor arrested in wife's death
  • Ex-Methodist minister charged with criminal homicide
  • Suicide at church led to new scrutiny of reported wreck
  • Manner of first wife's death "remains undetermined," report states

(CNN) -- A suicide that occurred at a former Pennsylvania pastor's office in 2008 led police to reopen an investigation into the death of the clergyman's second wife, resulting in his arrest this week and a new look into the death of his first wife nine years earlier.

Arthur Schirmer was arrested and charged with criminal homicide Monday, more than two years after the death of his wife, Betty Jean, in what appeared to be an automobile accident, according to Pennsylvania State Police. In addition, detectives are looking into the 1999 death of another wife, Jewel Schirmer, from what was reported as a fall down their basement steps, Schirmer's arrest report states.

When confronted by reporters after his arrest, Schirmer would not address the charges. Attempts to reach his attorney for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Suspicion began to fall on Schirmer in October 2008, when the husband of his church secretary shot himself in the pastor's office at his United Methodist church in Reeders, Pennsylvania. "During the investigation it was discovered that the defendant was involved in an extramarital affair with his administrative assistant," the dead man's wife, the report states.

Schirmer had been a Methodist pastor since 1970. He resigned while the investigation was under way in 2008 and "is no longer a minister in the United Methodist Church," the Rev. Peggy Johnson, bishop for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the UMC, said in a statement.

"We mourn the death of Mrs. Schirmer, who led an active role in the ministry of Reeders UMC," the bishop's statement said. "Her loss was a deep loss to the congregation. We are deeply saddened by this difficult situation."

News of the suicide at the church led to complaints about the deaths of Schirmer's previous wives, the report states. Police in Pocono Township, about 100 miles north of Philadelphia, reopened their investigation into the car crash that killed Betty Jean Schirmer, learning about the death of Jewel Schirmer in the process.

Schirmer told police after the July 2008 wreck that he was swerving to avoid a deer when his car hit a guardrail. But investigators have determined that Betty Jean Schirmer was bleeding before the accident, and DNA tests identified her blood on the floor of their garage, an investigator's affidavit states.

An expert at Penn State University determined the Schirmers' Chrysler PT Cruiser had been doing between 18 and 22 mph at the time it struck guardrail near the church -- not the 40 to 45 mph the minister reported, according to the report. Schirmer said his wife was not wearing a seat belt, but "provided several contradicting accounts" about why she wasn't.

Betty Jean Schirmer had suffered multiple skull and facial fractures and a cut on the right side of her head, as well as bleeding inside the skull, the report states. Forensic examiners told investigators in July that her injuries were "inconsistent with having been caused by this automobile accident," and that the death should be investigated as a homicide.

Meanwhile, Jewel Schirmer "was reportedly discovered by the defendant lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of their basement steps" in April 1999, according to the affidavit. She had a fractured skull and "multiple impact injuries" around her face and head, along with scrapes and bruises on her upper body and arms.

Her manner of death "remains undetermined" and is under investigation by authorities in Lebanon, about 100 miles southwest of Reeders, according to the report.