Image: Mary Winkler
John David Mercer  /  Mobile Register
Sheriff's deputies lead Mary Winkler into court in Foley, Ala., for a child custody hearing on Friday after Tennessee officals filed first-degree murder charges against her.
updated 3/24/2006 6:33:21 PM ET 2006-03-24T23:33:21

A minister’s wife was charged Friday with shooting her husband to death in the parsonage in a crime that shocked the congregation and shattered the couple’s happy and loving image.

Mary Winkler, 32, was arrested on murder charges and confessed to the slaying after fleeing to Alabama in the family’s minivan with the couple’s three young daughters, authorities said.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent John Mehr said authorities know the motive for the killing but he would not disclose it. He said police did not believe it was infidelity, but he would not comment on whether Mary Winkler had accused her husband of abuse. Court papers offered no hint of a motive.

Her husband of 10 years, Matthew Winkler, a popular and charismatic 31-year-old preacher at a fundamentalist Christian church, was found dead in a bedroom at the couple’s home Wednesday night in Selmer, a town of about 4,600 in western Tennessee.

Children in the house during killing
Mehr said that the couple’s daughters were at the house when their father was shot and that authorities had found the weapon used to kill him. Mehr would not give any further details.

Judy Woodlee, a member of a church in McMinnville where Matthew Winkler had been a youth minister before moving to Selmer, said Mary Winkler’s arrest was a shock.

“They were a good Christian family. They always seemed happy,” she said.

After a daylong search, Mary Winkler and her daughters were found Thursday night leaving a restaurant in Orange Beach, Ala., about 340 miles from home. Orange Beach Police Chief Billy Wilkins said she had rented a condo on the beach after the slaying.

She agreed to be returned to Tennessee and was expected to arrive on Saturday.

A judge sent the three girls — Breanna, 1; Mary Alice, 6; and Patricia, 8 — back to Tennessee to live with their paternal grandparents, said David Whetstone, the district attorney in Baldwin County.

Matthew Winkler’s father, Dan Winkler, attended the hearing and spoke to reporters later.

“Thank you for your love, support and prayers,” he said. “Now we want to turn our attention to remembering our son and to the care of three young children.”

Mary Winkler, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 120 pounds, was led into the hearing but did not respond to questions from reporters.

Church members found the body
Members of the Fourth Street Church of Christ found Matthew Winkler’s body after he missed a Wednesday evening service. The slaying of the third-generation minister shocked those who knew him.

Winkler was hired at the 200-member church in February 2005. The congregation quickly came to love his by-the-book sermons, said Wilburn Ash, an elder.

Church members also took to his wife, whom they described as a quiet, unassuming woman who was a substitute teacher at an elementary school.

Mary and Matthew Winkler were married in 1996. They had met at Freed-Hardeman University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Henderson where Matthew’s father was an adjunct professor. Mary took education classes, and Matthew took Bible classes. Neither graduated.

Churches of Christ do not consider themselves a denomination since every congregation is independently governed by a group of church elders. They generally believe the Bible should be interpreted literally and that baptism is essential for salvation. The church is also noted for its prohibition on using musical instruments during services.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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