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Accused ex-pastor to face murder charges in Pennsylvania

By The CNN Wire Staff
  • Former minister Arthur Schirmer is being held without bond
  • The charges came 2 years after a member's suicide rocked his church
  • The suicide led to new scrutiny of the deaths of Schirmer's two wives

(CNN) -- A former Methodist pastor accused of staging a car wreck to cover up his wife's killing had performed marriage counseling for the woman whose husband's suicide eventually led to his arrest, the dead man's niece said Wednesday.

Police say Joseph Musante shot himself in October 2008 in the office of the Reeders, Pennsylvania, church where his wife Cindy worked as the secretary. Musante had learned that his wife had been having an affair with the church's then-pastor, Arthur Schirmer, who had counseled the couple, his niece -- who agreed to be identified only by her first name Joanne -- told HLN's "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell."

"My uncle and Cindy were having problems in their marriage, having difficulties, and the pastor was there and he was supposed to be, you know, leaning towards Cindy to help her in her marriage," Joanne said.

A judge in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, ruled Tuesday that prosecutors had enough evidence to put Schirmer on trial for murder in the July 2008 death of his second wife, Betty Jean Schirmer. Mrs. Schirmer was initially believed to have died from head injuries in a car crash, but police reopened their investigation into the wreck after Musante's suicide and after a two-year investigation, arrested her husband in mid-September.

Schirmer has been held without bond and has not yet entered a plea. His attorney, Brandon Reish, has not returned phone calls seeking comment.

The probe also led to new scrutiny of the 1999 death of Schirmer's first wife, Jewel Schirmer, who died after what was reported to have been a fall down the steps at their home in Lebanon, about 100 miles southwest of Reeders.

Schirmer resigned his pastorship in November 2008, about a month after Musante's death, the Rev. Peggy Johnson, the United Methodist bishop for eastern Pennsylvania, told HLN's "Prime News."

"We are praying for him, and the whole community is just devastated," Johnson said.

Schirmer and Cindy Musante are still dating, Joanne said. She said she was "just so relieved" that Schirmer was arrested, "and I'm sure my uncle is up in heaven looking down and so relieved this has happened as well."

Upon re-examining the July 2008 auto accident, investigators determined that Betty Jean Schirmer's insjuries were inconsistent with what appeared to be a low-speed crash and that the death should be investigated as a homicide, according to a Pennsylvania state police report. Schirmer was not injured in the crash, and investigators found his wife's blood on the floor of his garage,

Back in 1999, Schirmer reported that he found his then-wife Jewel lying in a pool of blood at the foot of their basement steps. Jewel Schirmer had a fractured skull and "multiple impact injuries," according to an investigators' affidavit in the second wife's death. Her manner of death "remains undetermined" and is under investigation by authorities in Lebanon, the affidavit states.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said it could be "very hard" for prosecutors to find enough evidence to bring charges against Schirmer in that 11-year-old case -- "especially when you're talking about whether somebody was pushed down a flight of stairs or whether somebody fell down a flight of stairs," Kobilinsky told "Prime News."