IMAGE: PASTOR AND HIS FAMILY
AP
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations released this photo of the Winkler family of Selmer, Tenn., in the search for Mary Winkler and her three daughters. Matthew Winkler was found dead late Wednesday.
updated 3/24/2006 12:47:19 AM ET 2006-03-24T05:47:19

A popular and charismatic Tennessee minister was found shot to death in his parsonage, and authorities labled his wife a suspect after she and the couple’s three young daughters were found in Alabama on Thursday after a daylong search.

“We’ve known from the beginning that she was either a suspect or a victim,” said Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.

Church members went looking for 31-year-old Matthew Winkler when he did not show up for an evening service at the Fourth Street Church of Christ. They used a key to enter the parsonage and found him dead in a bedroom late Wednesday, Police Chief Neal Burks said.

There were no signs of forced entry at the parsonage, authorities said, but Winkler’s family was gone, along with their minivan.

The other family members were found Thursday night in southern Alabama when a police officer saw their van parked along a road.

Authorities said they were alone in the van.

Wife under suspicion
Johnson said Mary Winkler, 32, had not been arrested, but was considered a suspect. TBI agents and Selmer police were on their way to Alabama late Thursday to question her and the children.

The bureau issued an Amber Alert early Thursday for the couple’s daughters, Breanna, 1; Mary Alice, 6; and Patricia, 8. The alert said the girls might be with their mother.

All were in good physical condition when they were found in Orange Beach, Ala., about 400 miles south of Selmer.

Johnson said investigators had learned about 1½ hours before the family was found that they might be in southern Alabama or the Florida Panhandle.

Mary Winkler had last been seen late Tuesday afternoon picking up the children from school, said Ed Jones, TBI assistant director. Burks said she worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary school.

“We’re just so relieved that the kids were found safe and now we can focus on the next task” of solving the crime, Johnson said.

Tracy Stewart, city clerk in Selmer, said city investigators plan to go to Alabama to interview the family.

Matthew Winkler was hired as minister in February 2005, said Wilburn Ash, an elder at the 200-member church in Selmer, a town of about 4,600 in western Tennessee. The job was Winkler’s first full-time position after working as a youth minister at another church.

Ash said he never saw any conflict in the family.

“He seemed like he was real happy here, and we were happy with him,” Ash said. “He preached the Bible. He didn’t make his opinions known on what was popular or what was politically right. He just preached the Bible.”

‘They just blended in’
Former Mayor Jimmy Whittington said he worked with the minister collecting donations for hurricane victims last year. “They were a nice family,” he said. “They just blended in.”

Matthew Winkler’s grandfather had a 60-year-career as an evangelist in four Southern states, and his father is a minister and adjunct professor at the Church of Christ-affiliated Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson.

He was serving his first full pastorship in Selmer after working as a youth minister at a church in McMinnville, church members said.

Members of the congregation gathered Thursday inside the one-story brick church. “We’re just trying to console each other,” Ash said.

Pam Killingsworth, a church member and assistant principal at Selmer Elementary, where the Winkler children went to her school, said: “I can’t believe this would happen.”

“The kids are just precious, and she was precious,” Killingsworth said, her eyes red from crying and her voice cracking at times. “He was the one of the best ministers we’ve ever had — just super charisma.”

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