LEBANON, Pa. -- Retired Pennsylvania pastor Arthur "A.B." Schirmer was a serial philanderer, preying on women in his church who were having trouble in their own marriages, court documents say.
Yet adultery might have been the least of his sins.
Charged two years ago in the death of his second wife, Schirmer now stands accused of killing his first wife, too, after a grand jury concluded her injuries weren't consistent with a fall down the stairs, Lebanon County prosecutors announced Friday. He intends to plead innocent, and his children say they support him.
Schirmer, 64, has long claimed he was out for a run on April 23, 1999, when he returned home to find Jewel Schirmer's body in a pool of blood at the bottom of the basement steps. Although she had suffered a fractured skull as well as injuries to her face, body, arms and legs, the coroner made no determination as to whether her death was an accident or a homicide, and the case was closed.
That decision never sat well with her brother.
Jonathan Behney told police two days after his sister's death that "it was his opinion that her head was smashed in by someone," a police affidavit said. "He added that Arthur had been cheating on his sister for some time and has had several extramarital affairs with other women."
Police and prosecutors decided to take another look at Jewel Schirmer's death after her husband of 31 years came under investigation in the 2008 death of his second wife, Betty Jean, in the Pocono Mountains. Prosecutors in that case say Schirmer killed Betty Jean Schirmer, then staged a car accident to cover it up. He faces trial in January.
On Friday, Behney welcomed the decision to charge Schirmer in his 50-year-old sister's death.
"I'd like the truth to come out, not only for my family, but for Betty Jean's family, and for us to get closure," said Behney, joining Lebanon County District Attorney David Arnold at a news conference.
The district attorney said he did not believe the initial 1999 investigation was botched, though he added no probe is completely free of mistakes.
"Looking back today on what they knew at the time, I wouldn't feel comfortable criticizing the people who worked on it. I don't think it would be fair to them," he said. "We have different technologies available now that they didn't have then."
That technology would eventually help them break open the case.
Investigators hired a biomechanical engineering firm to recreate Jewel Schirmer's supposed fall down the stairs. The firm used a test dummy fitted with various instruments to collect data on the forces to which her tumbling body would have been subjected.
"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.
The grand jury cited medical testimony that revealed Schirmer likely used blunt objects to kill both his wives.
"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 report said.
Schirmer's attorney, James Swetz, said his client will be vindicated. Swetz's firm also released a statement from the three adult children of A.B. and Jewel Schirmer that said their father is innocent of all charges.
"We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the false accusations and allegations that have been waged against our father," the statement said. "He is a compassionate and gentle man who would never harm anyone."
At least one of Schirmer's former congregants, Kathy Siegrist, said she felt betrayed by the man who'd led her spiritual life for 20 years, so much so that she no longer attends a church.
Siegrist who called herself Jewel Schirmer's best friend said she had always considered A.B. Schirmer, who led Bethany United Methodist Church in Lebanon, to be gentle and kind. But there were hints of a darker side, flashes of anger that Siegrist said she never saw but that her then-husband used to talk about.
"The moment this happened, he told me he thinks A.B. killed her," Siegrist said.
Schirmer's former flock at Bethany was shocked and upset two years ago when he was first charged with homicide. Friday's charges come as less of a surprise, said the current pastor, the Rev. Nelson Alleman, who arrived at Bethany in 2010.
Alleman said he plans to speak briefly about it during worship Sunday and will tell the congregation: "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."
"Young L.A. Girl Slain; Body Slashed in Two" -L.A.'s Daily News
On January 15, 1947, the remains of Elizabeth Short, were found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. What made this discovery the stuff of tabloid sensation, however, was the Glasgow smile left on the aspiring actress' face--made with 3-inch slashes on each side. This, coupled with Short's dark hair, fair complexion and reputation for sporting a dahlia in her hair, dubbed her "The Black Dahlia" in headlines. What followed was a media circus filled with rumors and speculation about the promiscuous 22-year-old's checkered past. What haunts theorists to this day, apart from the victim's uniquely nightmarish visage, is that the case remains unsolved after some 200 suspects were interviewed and ultimately released--making it one of Hollywood's most lurid legends.
"I Am Not Guilty - Thus Lizzie Borden Pleads Before Judge Hammond at New Bedford." -Boston Journal
<em>"Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one."</em> So goes the lurid nursery rhyme to one of the most mystifying crimes of the century. The nature of the deaths of Andrew J. Borden and his wife, Abby, are trumped only by the identity of the alleged perpetrator: their daughter, Lizzie. Inexplicably found "not guilty" in contrast to the era's zeitgeist of swift justice, Lizzie's legacy--guilty or not--has become immortalized as one of the most perplexing cases of parricide in history.
"Texas Mother Charged with Killing Her 5 Children" -CNN
In a case of mother-gone-mad that startled a nation, Andrea Yates, to her few friends and neighbors, was known as a mere recluse suffering from postpartum depression leading up to the birth of her fifth child. That all changed on June 20, 2001, when she snapped, drowning five of her children in their home's bathtub. She was convicted in 2002 of capital murder, carrying a sentence of life in prison with possible parole. As of July 2006, however, a Texas jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity.
"Buttafuoco Admits to Sex with Amy Fisher" -New York Times
Known as the "Long Island Lolita," Fisher became involved with Joey Buttafuoco in May of 1991. Shortly after the two began a sexual relationship (she, 16, while he, 35, was married with two children), his presence and influence in her life became all she cared for. In what he's since denied to this day, Buttafuoco would go on to help an obsessive Fisher plan the murder of his wife, culminating in Fisher putting a bullet in Mary Jo Buttafuoco's head, but failing to kill her. In the highly publicized trial that ensued, Fisher accepted a plea deal for 15 years in prison in exchange for a testimony against Joey, who faced and served out charges of statutory rape.
"Murder of a Little Beauty" -People Magazine
With a face that graced the covers of nearly every news and gossip rag during the winter of '96, it's hard to suggest the death of child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey had little effect outside the city of Boulder, Colorado. Found dead from a blow to the head and strangulation in the family's basement, coupled with a ransom note left on the staircase asking for $118,00 (conveniently or coincidentally, nearly the same amount Mr. Ramsey received as a bonus that year), as well as no obvious signs of forced entry into the house, the evidence was overwhelmingly stacked against parents John and Patsy, who managed to maintain their innocence throughout the investigation. The case reopened in 2010, but critics cite poor handling of the crime scene as obstructing what remains a mystery regarding the events of that Christmas day.
"F.B.I. Joins Probe in Slaughter of 8 Nurses" -Nashua Telegraph
Tattooed with "Born to Raise Hell" on his arm, Richard Speck made good on his mantra through a history of violence, theft, alcoholism, and spousal abuse, but made his infamy known to all when, on July 13, 1966, he walked into a dormitory armed with a knife. After leaving 8 student nurses dead in his wake, only one, Cora Amurao, was spared--hiding under a bed until 6 a.m. Speck was found guilty of murder and died of a heart attack in prison. As one of the most press-worthy crimes of the decade, the grim events were used most recently as the backdrop for an episode of <em>Mad Men</em>.
"Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered" -Los Angeles Times
Perhaps the most terrifying figure in American crime to have never actually killed anyone himself, Charles Manson founded a "family" of wayward individuals who hailed him as a prophet. So strong was his manipulation, he ordered, on the night of Aug. 8, 1969, four of his followers to kill everyone at the residence of 10050 Cielo Drive--including Roman Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, and her unborn child. Tate was stabbed 16 times, and her blood was used to write "pig" on the house's front door. The next night, Manson accompanied six of his family to the residence of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, only to help bind them before ordering their deaths. In 1971, Manson and three of his fellow defendants were found guilty of murder in the first-degree and several other crimes. At the time, it was the longest murder trial in American history, spanning nine and a half months, as well as the most expensive, estimating $1 million. Manson was denied parole for the 12th time in April 2012.
"Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped from Home of Parents on Farm Near Princeton; Taken from His Crib; Wide Search on" -The New York Times
Used as the basis for an Agatha Christie novel (<em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>) and dubbed "the biggest story since the Resurrection" by famed journalist H.L. Mencken, the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son continues to fascinate theorists today. Charles Jr. was discovered missing from his second-floor bedroom on March 1, 1932, along with a note demanding a then-unimaginable $50,000, igniting a media frenzy like no other. The tabloid pandemonium prompted many tips and leads, but none as concrete as a package containing the boy's pajamas and another message demanding the ransom. After some misdirection from the presumed kidnapper, Lindbergh's child was soon after discovered in the woods along a road near the family residence. Notwithstanding the evidence stockpiled against the easily vilified illegal German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann (who was sentenced), speculation prevails as to the true identity of the caper responsible in this tragic tale of one of America's greatest heroes.
"Not Guilty as Sin" -NY Post
Still fresh in the minds of many and not to easily be forgotten, the trial of Casey Anthony turned Orlando, Florida into anything but the "happiest place on earth." Following a series of lies, misdirection and manipulation by then-22 year old Casey, Caylee's skeletal remains were found five months into the investigation, setting the stage for what could only be described as the most incessantly publicized and shocking trial in recent memory. The media had a field day that went on for months: Highlighting the young, pretty, party girl image used against her in court as the prosecution tore apart an aimless defense--or so it seemed. After resorting to throwing her family under the bus, incriminating people entirely made-up ("Zanny the Nanny"), and fabricating elaborate stories for the police, Casey was found not guilty of murder due to evidence deemed mostly circumstantial and not meeting the burden of "beyond reasonable doubt," inciting much debate regarding whether true justice was served.
"An American Tragedy" -TIME
Known and heralded as the "trial of the century," former football star and actor O.J. Simpson found himself in the middle of the nation's biggest, most-televised trial following the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, but not before fleeing an all-points bulletin in his Ford Bronco with 20 units in tow, interrupting game 5 of the NBA Finals. By enlisting a dream team including Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and Robert Kardashian, the defense claimed Simpson was merely a victim of police fraud with regard to contaminated DNA evidence, while famously quipping "If it [the glove] doesn't fit, you must acquit." On October 3, 1995, an estimated 100 million people from around the world tuned in to watch the jury hand down a verdict of not guilty, consequently resulting in an estimated loss of $480 million in productivity and inciting an ongoing discussion of race in the judicial system that continues to this day.