Closing Arguments in Trial of Ex-Pastor Accused of Bludgeoning Wife, Staging Death

PHOTO: The Rev. Arthur Burton Schirmer, 62, right, is led into district court by Pennsylvania State Trooper Bill Skotleski in Tannersville, Pa., Sept. 13, 2010.
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Closing arguments are set to being later today after a former Pennsylvania pastor testified that his second wife died in a car accident and that he did not bludgeon her to death, as prosecutors have claimed.

Arthur Schirmer testified Friday, denying any role in the death of his second wife, Betty Schirmer, and saying that she died in a 2008 car accident when he swerved to avoid a deer in the Poconos.

"I didn't stage an event," Arthur Schirmer, 64, insisted. "[Betty] began to undo her seatbelt. As she did so, a deer came out to the right. We then made it to the guardrail," he said calmly.

The former pastor at Reeders United Methodist Church said he was alone, lost and scared at the hospital, where he asked doctors to take his wife off life support. He told jurors that decision "was agonizing" and that he "wanted her to live."

Betty Schirmer died a day after the crash and her body was cremated at the request of Arthur Schirmer.

Arthur Schirmer admitted he cheated on her and lied about it. But he said the Monroe County jury should believe his account about how she died.

When investigators re-examined the crash scene in 2010, they found that the car was going less than 25 mph at the time of the crash, too slow to cause Betty Schirmer's injuries. They also found Schirmer's blood in her husband's garage, a clue that she might have been injured before she got into the car.

Arthur 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.

The investigation into Betty Schirmer's death sparked another investigation into the death of Arthur Schirmer's first wife. Schirmer faces a second trial at a later date for the death of Jewel Schirmer, who died in April 1999 in their Lebanon, Pa., home.

Arthur Schirmer testified Friday that he found Jewel Schirmer 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.

Arthur Schirmer has already pleaded not guilty in his first wife's death. He is charged with one count of criminal homicide.

"If he's found not guilty in this case, it certainly may embolden him to think that he may be found not guilty again in the other case," ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams said. "If he's found guilty in this case, tough to know whether it may lead him to be likely to try to enter into some type of plea."

Evidence from the Jewel Schirmer investigation has been introduced by the prosecution in this trial, saying that both women were beaten by Arthur Schirmer, who then covered up the deaths to look like an accident.

Dr. Wayne Ross, who performed an autopsy on Jewel Schirmer in 1999 and then investigated the death of Betty Schirmer nine years later, said last week the evidence clearly shows that both women were savagely beaten with a crowbar or some other heavy cylindrical object.

"You look at Jewel Schrimer, she's got two strikes on the right side of her head. It looks like a long cylindrical object," Ross said in his testimony. "Compare that to Betty Schrimer, she's got two strikes in the right side of her head. The lacerations are similar. The patterns are similar."

It wasn't until a suicide in 2010 inside Schirmer's office that authorities decided to revisit the case of Betty Schirmer's death and arrest the pastor.

The man who broke in and shot himself in Arthur Schirmer's office at the Reeders United Methodist Church, Joseph Mustante, was the husband of the pastor's secretary, Cynthia Mustante, police said.

Mustante's suicide was prompted by the discovery that his wife and the pastor had apparently been having an affair, according to police.

Schirmer admitted Friday that he and his second wife had not been intimate in a number of years. Schirmer said Betty Schirmer 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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