The Pastor's Disappearing Wives
For most of his professional life, 62-year-old Arthur Burton “A.B.” Schirmer has been a man of God. He was a Methodist minister and chaplain to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. A respected pillar of his small community, he seemed to be, as the saying goes, an example of bad things happening to good people—his first wife died at age 50 in 1999; his second, at 56, in 2008.
But ever since Monday morning, when police charged Schirmer with murdering his second wife, Betty, and tampering with evidence to cover his tracks, the people who knew him are wondering if this man of God was a monster in their midst. And now investigators want to know if the silver-haired preacher with a fine lyric tenor has killed more than once. In addition to the current charges, they’ve opened an investigation into his first wife’s mysterious death as well.
That wife, Jewel Schirmer, had been married to Arthur for 30 years when she died some 12 years ago. They were 20 years old and students at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, when they married in 1968. They made an ideal musical match, tenor and soprano, and local papers carried notices of their various concert solos and duets in area churches. By 1976, they were performing with two of their children, giving concerts as The Singing Schirmer Family.
Betty Schirmer was dead from injuries not unlike the ones Jewel Schirmer suffered nine years prior.
The circumstances of Jewel’s death were always somewhat vague. Her autopsy concluded that she died from traumatic brain injury; her skull was fractured and her upper body marked with impact injuries. Arthur said she fell down a flight of steps. The coroner found that her manner of death was “undetermined,” and the obituaries ran with “natural causes” as the official final word.
Jump forward nearly a decade. Arthur and his new wife, Betty Jean, whom he married two years after Jewel’s death, were driving down State Route 715 near the Poconos around midnight on July 16, 2008. Arthur later told police he was driving Betty to the hospital because she had a pain in her jaw. He said he spotted a deer in the road but it was too late—the minister swerved to miss it and the car skidded out. He tried to correct but lost control of the vehicle. His PT Cruiser veered back across the road again and bounced along the guardrail before it came to a stop along the quiet, wooded road.
When first responders arrived at the scene, they found a minor crash that caused little damage to the vehicle or the guardrail. Yet Betty was dead from what court documents describe as “sustained multiple skull and facial fractures” and “brain injury”—injuries not unlike the ones Jewel Schirmer suffered nine years prior. Blood covered the interior of the vehicle. Arthur, the driver, was unhurt.
Police reports state that Arthur didn’t call 911, though he had a cellphone with him. Stranger still was that Betty, described by family as safety-conscious, wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Her husband couldn’t settle on an explanation as to why. He told police his wife was playing a game, seeing if the seat belt buzzer would stop. He also said she just happened to remove the restraint due to her jaw pain at the very moment the deer ran across the road.
At her husband’s request, Betty was cremated. A memorial was held three days after her death at Reeders United Methodist Church, where Arthur was the pastor.
Betty was the second person to die suddenly who had a connection to Arthur Schirmer, but she wouldn’t be the last. On October 29, 2008, about three months after the car crash, Joseph Musante committed suicide inside Reeders UMC. A construction supervisor and business owner who was an active member of the congregation, the 50-year-old Musante’s body was found inside Arthur’s office at the church.
Police initially said there was nothing suspicious about Musante’s suicide, but documents related to Arthur’s arrest this week reveal that Musante’s last, desperate act was the catalyst that sparked a deeper investigation into circumstances surrounding Betty’s death. Arthur, authorities learned, was having an affair with Joseph Musante’s wife Cynthia, an administrative assistant at the church, making him the common link between all three deaths.
By November 2008, the questions raised by Musante’s suicide and Arthur’s alleged affair with Musante’s wife had become too big to ignore. Pocono Township Police assigned Detective James Wagner to investigate the accident that supposedly killed Betty Schirmer. Around the time the investigation began, Arthur officially left the ministry.
In December 2008, a search warrant was executed at the Reeders UMC parsonage. Detectives found blood stains and evidence of attempts to clean blood from surfaces in the residence. DNA in the samples was positively linked to Betty Schirmer.
Investigators consulted with Dr. Zoltan Rado, director of the Penn State Crash Safety and Research Center, and had him re-examine photos of the wreck that allegedly killed Betty. Rado ran a computer model and found that it contradicted the minister’s statement regarding the speed of his car. Arthur claimed that he was traveling between 45 and 55 mph when he crashed. Rado’s computer model, however, estimated the speed of the car to be no greater than 25 mph when it hit the guardrail.
In July of this year, investigators met with the Lehigh County Coroner and Forensic Pathologist Samuel Land. They completed a thorough review of evidence related to the death of Betty Schirmer and concluded that she was the victim of a homicide.
Brandon Reish, Arthur’s lawyer, told the Associated Press his client didn’t kill anyone. Resurrecting the death of Jewel Schirmer, said Reish, is using “a prior tragedy to prosecute Mr. Schirmer for a current tragedy.” A voicemail left for Mr. Reish on Wednesday afternoon was not immediately returned.
Community reactions to the former minister’s arrest have been mixed. While some can’t believe a man like Arthur would ever commit murder, others say they were aware of a darker side to the pastor. Speaking to the Pocono Record, former Lebanon, Pennsylvania city councilman Daryl Cox described him as “a fine, outstanding Christian man” whom Cox couldn’t believe was being charged with murder. “Until I know differently,” said Cox, “I support A.B."
But Darla Vogt, a former parishioner at Reeders UMC, was skeptical. She told the Record the allegations didn’t surprise her and that she had long thought that something about Arthur “wasn’t right.” Vogt acknowledged that he was popular with other members of the church, but insisted she “saw right through him.”
Arthur is part of a trio that calls itself Beroean, an “evangelistic music ministry” that seeks to reach listeners through song and preaching. The Daily Beast could not reach a member of the group for comment, but Chic Kocher, the baritone member of the group, told Lancaster Online’s Cindy Stauffer that Schirmer was about to marry again. Kocher said he was “almost in tears” and “totally dumbfounded” over his friend’s arrest.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels between the case against Arthur Schirmer and a murder committed by Michael Peterson in North Carolina nine years ago. On December 9, 2001, Peterson called Durham emergency services to report that his wife had fallen down a flight of stairs. But an autopsy revealed that Kathleen Peterson, 48, died from blunt-force trauma to the head, injuries that were inconsistent with such a fall. Further investigation revealed a strange coincidence—in 1985, Michael Peterson’s friend Elizabeth Ratliff also died from a fall down a staircase. Peterson admitted he was the last person to see Ratliff before her death. He was convicted of killing Kathleen and is currently serving life without parole.
Meanwhile, Arthur Schirmer is being held without bail in the Monroe County Correctional Facility as he awaits his next court date. His Beroean trio, according to the group’s website, gets its name from people in the Bible “who studied the Word of God for themselves in order to find out whether they were being taught truth.” It’s likely that many who once thought they knew Arthur are now studying his words and sermons from across the years and asking themselves the same questions.
Steve Huff has written for TruTV’s Crime Library, Radar, Village Voice Media’s True Crime Report, CBS’s Crimesider and The New York Observer. He has appeared as a guest commentator on Dateline NBC and CBS 48 Hours Mystery.