A former Pennsylvania pastor has been charged in the deaths of his first and second wives, although he is arguing that both died from accidental causes. Members of his former congregation have expressed forgiveness, but say they are also "praying for justice."
"We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the false accusations and allegations that have been waged against our father," read a statement by the three adult children of Arthur Burton "A.B." Schirmer, the accused. "He is a compassionate and gentle man who would never harm anyone."
Schirmer, 56, was charged in a Lebanon County District court with the death of his first wife, Jewel Schirmer, with who he had a 31-year marriage, and also faces accusations in the death of his second wife, Betty Schirmer. His trial is set for January.
Schirmer's attorney has said that his client will plead innocent to both charges, although the court has noted that reports reveal the former pastor had been unfaithful to his first wife, and that the couple had experienced financial difficulties. Lebanon County District Attorney David Arnold refused to isolate a specific motive for the alleged murder.
Jewel Schirmer was first believed to have died from traumatic brain injuries sustained from a fall down the stairs in 1999, with Schirmer claiming that he found her body in a pool of blood at the bottom of the basement when he returned home from a run. At the time, the coroner could not determine whether her death was an accident or a homicide. A cardiologist noted that she had also suffered a heart attack, but a review from another cardiologist recently said that may not have been the case.
A leading voice against Schirmer is Jewel Schirmers' brother, Jonathan Behney, who has insisted that his sister did not die accidentally.
"I've been waiting 13 years for this day to come," Behney said on Friday. "It's time for justice."
Investigators restarting the case hired a biomechanical engineering firm to recreate the incident using a test dummy – the results of which led to suspicions that Jewel Schirmers may not have died accidentally.
"We found the 'crash dummy' evidence to be particularly compelling, as it indicated to us that Jewel could not have suffered all of her injuries by accidentally falling down a flight of stairs," the grand jury wrote.
Betty Schirmer, the former pastor's second wife, is believed to have died in a car accident at Pocano Mountains in 2008 – but prosecutors say both alleged accidents may have been staged to provide cover a up for Schirmer.
"We find it particularly disturbing and difficult to believe that both of A.B. Schirmer's wives could have suffered such horrific injuries by accident. To the contrary, we believe probable cause exists to believe that neither woman died from an accident," the court report continued.
But James Swetz, Schirmer's attorney, has said: "Our belief, and what we intend to show in both of these incidents, is that the initial reports were correct, that the Monroe County death was an accident and in Lebanon County there was evidence of heart attack."
Former congregants of the pastor, who served at Bethany United Methodist Church in Lebanon, have also spoken on the issue, with one congregant, Kathy Siegrist, saying she "felt betrayed by the man who'd led her spiritual life for 20 years" and that it turned her away from attending church, The Associated Press reported. Siegrist revealed that she was Jewel Schirmer's best friend, and although she had known Schirmer as a kind and gentle man, she had heard of "flashes of anger" he was allegedly prone to have.
"We're a people of grace, we're a people of mercy, we're a people of forgiveness, and we also serve a God of justice and we are praying for justice, wherever that may be in this case," said the Rev. Nelson Alleman, the current pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church.