SELMER, Tenn., March 24 — The wife of a slain Tennessee minister was charged with first-degree murder on Friday after confessing to shooting him, the police said.
The defendant, Mary Winkler, 32, was arrested in Orange Beach, Ala., where the police discovered the family minivan on Thursday night pulled over on a roadside hundreds of miles from Selmer, where the family lived. She was found with the couple’s three young daughters, who were unharmed.
The killing has roiled the town of Selmer, a southwestern Tennessee community about 80 miles east of Memphis where Matthew Winkler, 31, was known as an energetic and vibrant preacher at the Fourth Street Church of Christ, as well as a loving father and husband.
“I don’t know what her reason is,” said Betty Wilkerson, the church secretary. “I know we’ll probably find out in the weeks to come. But I’m not going to judge her.”
John Mehr, special agent in charge for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Western District, declined to comment about a motive or why Mrs. Winkler went to Alabama with the children. She remained in custody in Alabama on Friday night.
Church members searched for Mr. Winkler after he failed to show up for a service Wednesday night and calls to his telephone were unanswered. When they went to the church-owned home across town, they let themselves in with a key they found and discovered Mr. Winkler’s bloodied body in a bedroom.
With no sign of his wife, daughters or the family car, many in the congregation thought Mrs. Winkler and the children had been kidnapped.
The news that the police said Mrs. Winkler had confessed baffled those who knew them and their daughters, Breanna, 1, Mary Alice, 6, and Patricia, 8.
Ms. Wilkerson described Mrs. Winkler as “very domestic” and said she would often bring lunch to her husband at the church. The two would sit and visit in an office. “They just seemed like the all-American family,” Ms. Wilkerson said.
The Winklers’ church was one of many that posted advertisements in the fields along nearby U.S. 45. But members said that Matthew Winkler attracted new members with his dynamism and energy, increasing the congregation to 200 members from about 140 in the year he had been its pastor.
The church was mostly quiet on Friday, with no services or events planned. By midafternoon, a handwritten sign went up on the front door: “No more interviews today.”
Inside the door, photographs of the children and their mother were stapled to a bulletin board. More photos were on display in an inside room: pictures of the older girls in costumes, playing basketball and sitting with Santa, along with a picture of Mrs. Winkler holding her youngest daughter.
A steady trickle of church members knocked on the locked door and slipped inside, where they greeted one another, embraced and offered words of support. One was Janet Sparks, a retired teacher who has attended the church for decades.
Mr. Winkler’s effusive energy “just wore you out,” Ms. Sparks said with a laugh. She said she knew nothing about the family that would have predicted the killing.
“Everything you saw belies what has happened,” she said. “It just doesn’t go together. There’s something amiss, and we don’t know what that is.”
Still, Ms. Sparks said, it had only been a year since the Winklers had come to town, and it was hard to know if something lay beneath the surface.
“When you get right down to it, we didn’t know these people,” she said. “But do you ever know anybody? We don’t really know what goes on when they go home and close the doors.”
Nekki King, 32, a church member, lived just up Mollie Drive from her minister’s family in a wooded neighborhood. She called the couple “very sweet people.”
Her three children often played with the Winkler children, and the families got together for birthday parties. She pointed to a page torn from the church directory with a color photo of Mr. Winkler and said, “That was a good man.”
Ms. King had gotten to know Mrs. Winkler. The women had planned to assemble scrapbooks, and they often sat and talked about what was going on in their lives.
“Nothing was ever wrong,” Ms. King said. “I just wonder if something happened that no one knows about.”