STROUDSBURG, Pa. — A former Pennsylvania pastor accused of killing his second wife testified in his own defense Friday, describing her death as the result of a car accident that left him feeling alone, lost and scared.
Arthur Schirmer admitted he cheated on her and lied about it. But he said the jury should believe his account about how she died.
Prosecutors contend Schirmer staged the accident after bludgeoning his wife, Betty, and have charged him with homicide.
"I didn't stage an event," he insisted.
The ex-clergyman appeared calm and showed little emotion in Monroe County Court as he talked about the 2008 crash.
He told jurors that he was driving his wife to an emergency room in the Poconos for treatment of severe jaw pain when she removed her seat belt to make herself more comfortable. At that moment, a deer crossed their path, he served to avoid it, and the car hit a guardrail, he said.
Though he escaped injury and the car was lightly damaged, his wife was hospitalized with severe head and brain trauma.
Schirmer testified that he felt "alone, lost, scared, scared, scared" while at the hospital with his gravely injured spouse. Removing Betty Schirmer from life support after the crash was difficult, he said.
"It was agonizing, really, because you want her to live," Schirmer said. "We wanted her to live. It was just a very agonizing decision."
Schirmer, who had Betty's body cremated a day after her death, contradicted earlier testimony that she was opposed to the practice. He also explained his decision to put her ashes in an urn decorated with a mountain scene that included a deer – the animal that supposedly caused the crash that killed his wife.
"Betty loved deer," he said. "At that moment, I thought it would be meaningful."
Prosecutor Michael Mancuso was sarcastic and scornful as he peppered Schirmer with questions about his wife's death and tried to get him to admit that he beat her in the garage of the parsonage, loaded her into the car and deliberately ran into the guardrail at low speed. Police found Betty Schirmer's blood on the garage floor, along with evidence that someone had tried to clean it up.
"Betty didn't die in that simple crash, isn't that right?" Mancuso said.
"No sir," Schirmer replied.
Schirmer explained the blood on the floor by telling the jury that she was helping him move a pile of wood from the garage when a piece fell on her, gashing her forearm. Mancuso questioned the lack of any evidence that Betty was ever cut by falling wood.
Prompted by Mancuso, the former pastor acknowledged that he and his second wife had not been intimate in a number of years because, he said, she had been through menopause and wasn't interested in sex. He also admitted he viewed pornography on his home computer and that he'd cheated on his wife – and lied about it.
Schirmer once wrote an old friend that his moribund sex life was "dangerous for me because I really like to be touched," Mancuso said, quoting the defendant's email.
Defense lawyer Brandon Reish said outside court that Mancuso was effective in pointing out "minor inconsistencies" in Schirmer's testimony. But he said "the larger parts, the big issues, have been consistent, and the jury needed to hear that."
Schirmer, an associate pastor at Reeders United Methodist Church when Betty died, is awaiting trial in Lebanon County on charges he bludgeoned his first wife, Jewel, in 1999. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.
He testified Friday that he found Jewel dead at the bottom of the basement staircase when he came home from a jog. She had been vacuuming dog hair from the steps, he said.
Under cross examination, Schirmer said Jewel was a perfectionist, especially when it came to music, and that he sometimes failed to measure up to her exacting standards. Mancuso presented an email that Schirmer wrote after she died, in which he said his first wife was never satisfied in life, but could be in death.
"She is now fulfilled," he wrote, "and everything is perfect for her."
Schirmer was the trial's final witness, and court adjourned for the weekend after his testimony. Closing arguments are set for Tuesday.
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