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Ex-pastor convicted of murdering 2nd wife in '08 now faces trial in 1st wife's '99 death

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STROUDSBURG, Pa. - A former Methodist clergyman convicted of bludgeoning his second wife to death in 2008 now faces trial on whether he killed his first wife, too.

Arthur Schirmer was convicted Tuesday of first-degree murder and evidence tampering after a jury in the Poconos concluded he clubbed Betty Schirmer on the head with a crowbar, then loaded her into their PT Cruiser and staged a low-speed accident in an effort to conceal the crime.

The former preacher, 64, was motionless as the jury returned its verdict 90 minutes after getting the case, and said nothing while being led from the courtroom in handcuffs.

The conviction of a man whom prosecutor Michael Mancuso had dubbed the "sinister minister" brought cries and tears of joy from the family of Betty Schirmer, 56, who suffered mortal brain injuries after prosecutors say he attacked her on July 15, 2008.

"Today, she can finally rest in peace," said her son, Nate Novack, who thanked prosecutors for "bringing my mom's killer to justice."

Schirmer maintained his innocence, and his attorney pledged to appeal.

Defence attorney Brandon Reish had insisted in his closing argument that while his client cheated on Betty, he had no motive to kill her.

"Accidents happen," Reish told jurors. "Sometimes there are no explanations. Car accidents, falling down stairs, falling off ladders. People die in accidents every day."

Schirmer is charged separately in the 1999 death of his first wife, Jewel Schirmer, and awaits trial in Lebanon County.

The longtime United Methodist pastor asserts that Jewel — his wife of more than 30 years — fell down the basement stairs while vacuuming. He said he found her with the cord of a Shop-Vac wrapped around her ankle.

"That's staging 101," said Mancuso.

Like Betty Schirmer, the prosecutor told jurors in his closing argument, Jewel Schirmer suffered "forceful, hard blows to the back of the head. It was murder, and it was going to happen again."

The defence had fought to keep testimony about Jewel Schirmer's death out of the trial, but the judge allowed it. Reish said that decision would form the basis of his appeal.

"I think the admission of the circumstances surrounding the death of Jewel Schirmer really did prejudice the case," he said. The quick verdict, he added, "says there was something there that was improper that they shouldn't have been considering."

Schirmer took the stand in his own defence last week and testified that he was driving his second wife to the emergency room for treatment of jaw pain when he swerved to avoid a deer and hit a guardrail.

Local police initially treated it as a straightforward car crash. But months later, state police began a more thorough investigation when a man committed suicide in Schirmer's office after learning the pastor was in a relationship with his wife, the church secretary.

Authorities ultimately concluded the fender-bender could not have caused Betty Schirmer's extensive head and brain injuries. Police also found her blood on the garage floor and evidence that someone had tried to clean it up. Schirmer contends she was cut while helping him move a wood pile weeks before the crash.

His conviction brings an automatic life sentence without parole.

The victim's family is "down and out and distraught but they're really thankful," said Betty Schirmer's youngest brother, Bill Shertzer. "We've been waiting for this for so long."

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