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What Drove the Preacher's Wife?

No one knows why Mary Winkler killed her minister husband. With few facts, a small Bible Belt town in Tennessee has many theories.

August 27, 2006|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

SELMER, Tenn. — If the minister's widow can be believed -- and, accused of his murder, she might prove less than reliable -- Matthew Winkler's last, gasping utterance before he left this world was a question, one that would haunt this town for months to come, haunts it still: Why?

It was early on a Wednesday morning last March. The 31-year-old Church of Christ minister and father of three young girls had been in bed, and presumably still asleep, when the shotgun blast tore into him from behind.

Fired at close range, the single round from the 12-gauge "turkey gun" pumped 77 pellets into Winkler, fracturing his spine and perforating his ribs, left lung, diaphragm, stomach, spleen, pancreas and adrenal glands. The force of the blast flipped him off the bed. He landed on his back in a tangle of sheets.

"I went over and I wiped his mouth off with a sheet," Mary Winkler would recall two days later, after she had been stopped in the family van in Orange Beach, Ala., about 500 miles south of here. "I told him I was sorry and that I loved him....

"He asked me, 'Why?'

"And I just said I was sorry."

Though the Winklers had lived here for only a year, members of the Fourth Street Church of Christ regarded 32-year-old Mary Carol Winkler as a model minister's wife. They recalled how she would bring Matthew lunch in the church office, take walks with him in the city park. She seemed a bit reserved, maybe, almost shy, but as more than one church member put it, the place of a preacher's wife is "in the background."

In fact, said church elder Wilburn Gene Ashe, right up to the very day of the killing, "if you had asked me to name the most ideal couples in the congregation, Matthew and Mary would have been one of them, right up there at the top."

No signs of trouble at all?

"None whatsoever," said Ashe, who saw the Winklers at least three times a week and sometimes dined with them in the parsonage. "Absolutely not."

And yet two days after the killing, questioned by Tennessee investigators, Mary Winkler conceded -- as the shotgun carnage would seem to have made obvious -- that there had been "some problems" in the 10-year marriage, particularly in the past year and a half.

She complained to investigators about constant carping from her husband, criticisms about "the way I walked, what I ate, everything." She mentioned financial pressures, which she described as "mostly my fault, bad bookkeeping." It was, she said, "just building to a point. I was just tired of it. I guess I just got to a point and I snapped."

Certain details about her journey from adored preacher's wife to accused husband slayer Mary Winkler did not share with the Tennessee investigators in that initial interview. She did not tell them, for instance, about the bad checks she'd been passing through a web of bank accounts, transactions that had prompted a concerned call from the bank the day before her husband was shot.

Nor did she tell them about her apparently related entanglement in what is known as a Nigerian scam, a common and often ruinous form of fraud that preys on those naive enough to believe they are about to come into big and easy money, if only they play along.

She did not tell them about the bedroom telephone.

Worried when minister Winkler missed Wednesday evening prayers, church members had let themselves into the parsonage, a handsome brick house about a five-minute drive from the church. They discovered Winkler's body on the floor of the master bedroom and called the police.

Entering the bedroom, detective Roger Rickman, a 24-year veteran of the Selmer Police Department, noticed a telephone on the floor in the middle of the room, about five feet away from the victim's feet. The device had been unplugged from its cord, a length of which was tangled up beneath Winkler's head.

The intent, Rickman asserted in a subsequent court hearing, seemed to him as obvious at it was sinister: The telephone had been disconnected so that "someone" -- such as the dying, but not yet dead, minister -- "couldn't call 911."

Just how long it had taken Winkler, a stocky former high school football star, to bleed to death has not been entered into the record; the state medical examiner has said only that it would have been "a finite amount of time."

For her part, Mary Winkler did not wait to find out. Nor did she telephone for help. Instead, she grabbed an extra pair of socks for the baby, loaded her children -- and the shotgun -- into her Toyota van and sped for the interstate.

"I was scared, sad and wanted to get out of the house" was how she explained it.

Churchgoing County

Selmer, population 4,500, sits in the southwest corner of Tennessee, a crossroads town surrounded by rolling crop and timberlands. According to civic lore, Selmer was named by a developer who wanted to honor Selma, Ala. Early on, however, it came to be spelled the way folks pronounced it, with a Tennessee twang.

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