Dateline   |  November 06, 2010

‘The Preacher’s Wife’

From the outside the Winklers seemed like the perfect, Christian family. Then early one morning, everything changed.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

Ms. MARY WINKLER: I remember the smell and the sound.

KEITH MORRISON reporting: It was the day murder ripped through a little parsonage in a small town in Tennessee .

Unidentified Man #1: We found the preacher and he's dead.

MORRISON: The story played out like a Gothic horror movie. The dead preacher, the wild road trip, his wife and little girls and a shotgun in a van at the beach. This was the case of Mary Winkler , the preacher's wife.

Mr. STEVE FARESE: What's in that sack, Mary ?

MORRISON: How it all unfolded, so shocking.

Lieutenant ROGER RICKMAN: I was just astounded. I just -- I couldn't really believe it.

MORRISON: Partly, as you will see, it's the tale of a public event and its surprising outcome. But we are here to tell you the intensely private story behind it, the one almost no one has ever heard, the one only Mary Winkler knows.

MORRISON: What is in your heart at that very moment?

Ms. M. WINKLER: I don't know.

Mr. MATTHEW WINKLER: We'll sing number 189, then we'll have this

morning's lesson. Master the tempest is raging, the billows are tossing high.

MORRISON: We begin with Matthew and Mary , so perfectly named, so deeply steeped in the faith of their fathers. Their family name , Winkler , was legendary in the conservative Church of Christ in southern Tennessee . And Matthew , tall, handsome, athletic, had picked up the mantle as if the ministry, as if great preaching was built right into his DNA .

Mr. M. WINKLER: What we want to talk about this morning, the storms of life.

MORRISON: Storms? No hint of one here. Quite the contrary. Like Matthew , Mary Carol Winkler came from a devout Church of Christ family, too. Bubbly and vivacious is what her father called her.

Mr. CLARK FREEMAN: She grew up a very happy girl. Very involved in everything...

...friends around all the time.

MORRISON: Mary met Matthew at a Christian university. Her sister saw what was happening.

TABITHA: He was like Mary .

TABITHA: They fit together. They were both very fun and outgoing.

MORRISON: When they announced they were getting married, how did the family feel?

TABITHA: We were happy. Everything seemed to be in its place, as it should be.

MORRISON: They married in April, 1996 , with bridesmaids dressed in pink, the favorite color of a little sister , Patricia , whose death gouged such a wound in Mary 's heart. The young couple patterned their marriage on the Church of Christ 's strict and literal interpretation of the Bible . As Christ is the head of his church, the husband is the head of the household . Fellow church member Kathy Thompson .

Ms. KATHY THOMPSON: Women in the Church of Christ , during the services, are to be silent. We could sing.

MORRISON: Did that entrenched male dominance have anything to do with what eventually happened? Opinions both ways, these days. But we do know that Matthew was steeped from birth in this deeply conservative world. His father was a highly regarded Church of Christ minister. His grandfather and great-grandfather were, too.

Mary dropped out of school to help pay for Matthew 's education. A year later she became a mother, named her first child Patricia . A second daughter, Allie , was born in '99. And surrounded by his pretty girls , Matthew 's star was rising. He was charismatic and charming. People liked him.

Ms. THOMPSON: He was all about the crowd, you know. He was really about the crowd and smile.

MORRISON: In 2002 , Matthew accepted the position of youth minister at Central Church of Christ in McMinnville , Tennessee . That's where Kathy and her husband Rudy encountered his sweet little family.

Mr. RUDY THOMPSON: You know, they were a wonderful...

Mr. THOMPSON: ...wonderful example...

... all-American couple. Well, I remember them just holding hands all the time.

Mr. THOMPSON: A lot of times Matthew would have his hand, you know, around Mary 's waist.

MORRISON: They were human, too, of course. And so nobody thought much of it, really, when Matthew barked occasionally like he did once when Kathy Thompson made a scheduling request.

Ms. THOMPSON: I've never had a preacher talk to me that way. The tone he had...

Ms. THOMPSON: ...oh, it was so ugly.

MORRISON: They couldn't know either, that by then Mary 's family began to see less of her and the children, and that Matthew seemed somehow different.

TABITHA: When it was a good day ...

TABITHA: ...and he was in a good mood, he was the best person to be around. But if at any moment he turned, he was the very last person you wanted to be in the room with.

MORRISON: Still, all in all, life seemed pretty good. In the spring of 2005 , Mary gave birth to their third daughter, Breanna , and Matthew answered an exciting call, to be lead minister at the Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer , Tennessee . Matthew was buoyant, quite jolly, according to the church secretary. A good deal more so than his wife Mary with her home and three girls to care for.

Unidentified Woman #1: He definitely was the leader in the family.

Woman #1: She was friendly. She was always smiling, but there was never anybody really close to her for her that she talked to.

MORRISON: A year passed, and then one day, the girls missed school. No explanation. It was March 22, 2006 , Wednesday.

Woman #1: Patricia had had a music lesson that afternoon with me, and she didn't show up.

MORRISON: When Matthew didn't show up for evening Bible study , members waited 10 minutes, half an hour, an hour. And then a delegation of worried elders went to the Winkler house.

Unidentified Man #2: My heart kind of fell to my stomach. And I went back there and we found him.

MORRISON: Matthew Winkler 's dead body was sprawled on the bedroom floor.

Unidentified 911 Operator: 911, what's your emergency?

Man #1: It's the Church of Christ , at the preacher's house.

MORRISON: Sheriff Ricky Roten raced to the scene and confronted, along with the body, a terrifying mystery. Where was Mary ? Where were the girls? Had someone kidnapped the family?

Sheriff RICKY ROTEN: There's kids, three kids here. Where in the world are they at? You know, how do you do this?

MORRISON: An Amber Alert went out right away. Matthew had taken a 12 gauge shotgun shell in the back at point blank range apparently while he was sleeping.

Sheriff ROTEN: It wasn't a question what happened to him. It's just who done it, or have you any idea why?

MORRISON: And the phone was unplugged. Had the killer ensured he'd have no way to call for help as he lay on the floor and died? The members of Matthew 's church did their best to help.

Woman #1: We knew there was nothing else that we could do for Matthew .

Woman #1: And our next concern was, where were Mary and the children? Who had them?

MORRISON: As pictures of Mary and her girls circulated around the country a dreadful feeling close to panic ensued.

TABITHA: All of the scenarios that ran through my head was something to the effect that someone had taken Mary against her will.

Mr. FREEMAN: I kept calling her cell