(AP) A popular and charismatic Tennessee minister was found shot to death in his parsonage, and authorities searched on Thursday for his wife and three young daughters.
Police Chief Neal Burks said it was unclear whether the family was abducted. He declined to say whether the wife was considered a suspect in the slaying.
“We’re just really puzzled. We need to talk to her,” Burks said.
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, Burks said. Winkler’s family was gone, along with their minivan.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said there were no signs of forced entry at the parsonage.
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 may be with their mother, Mary Winkler.
Mary Winkler was last 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.
“They were a nice family,” said former Mayor Jimmy Whittington, who said he worked with the minister collecting donations for hurricane victims last year. “They just blended in.”
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.”
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.”
Arkansas and Kentucky state police were on the lookout for the family’s minivan.
Associated Press Writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this story.