No one knows why Mary Winkler killed her minister husband. With few facts, a small Bible Belt town in Tennessee has many theories.
If the minister’s widow can be believed — and, accused of his murder, she might prove less than reliable — Matthew inkler ‘s last, gasping utterance before he left this world was a question, one that would haunt this town for months to come, haunts it still: Why?
It was early on a Wednesday morning last March. The 31-year-old Church of Christ minister and father of three young girls had been in bed, and presumably still asleep, when the shotgun blast tore into him from behind.
Fired at close range, the single round from the 12-gauge “turkey gun” pumped 77 pellets into Winkler, fracturing his spine and perforating his ribs, left lung, diaphragm, stomach, spleen, pancreas and adrenal glands. The force of the blast flipped him off the bed. He landed on his back in a tangle of sheets.
“I went over and I wiped his mouth off with a sheet,” Mary Winkler would recall two days later, after she had been stopped in the family van in Orange Beach, Ala., about 500 miles south of here. “I told him I was sorry and that I loved him….
“He asked me, ‘Why?’
“And I just said I was sorry.”
Though the Winklers had lived here for only a year, members of the Fourth Street Church of Christ regarded 32-year-old Mary Carol Winkler as a model minister’s wife. They recalled how she would bring Matthew lunch in the church office, take walks with him in the city park. She seemed a bit reserved, maybe, almost shy, but as more than one church member put it, the place of a preacher’s wife is “in the background.”
In fact, said church elder Wilburn Gene Ashe, right up to the very day of the killing, “if you had asked me to name the most ideal couples in the congregation, Matthew and Mary would have been one of them, right up there at the top.”
No signs of trouble at all?
“None whatsoever,” said Ashe, who saw the Winklers at least three times a week and sometimes dined with them in the parsonage. “Absolutely not.”
And yet two days after the killing, questioned by Tennessee investigators, Mary Winkler conceded — as the shotgun carnage would seem to have made obvious — that there had been “some problems” in the 10-year marriage, particularly in the past year and a half.
She complained to investigators about constant carping from her husband, criticisms about “the way I walked, what I ate, everything.” She mentioned financial pressures, which she described as “mostly my fault, bad bookkeeping.” It was, she said, “just building to a point. I was just tired of it. I guess I just got to a point and I snapped.”
Certain details about her journey from adored preacher’s wife to accused husband slayer Mary Winkler did not share with the Tennessee investigators in that initial interview. She did not tell them, for instance, about the bad checks she’d been passing through a web of bank accounts, transactions that had prompted a concerned call from the bank the day before her husband was shot.
Nor did she tell them about her apparently related entanglement in what is known as a Nigerian scam, a common and often ruinous form of fraud that preys on those naive enough to believe they are about to come into big and easy money, if only they play along.
She did not tell them about the bedroom telephone.
Worried when minister Winkler missed Wednesday evening prayers, church members had let themselves into the parsonage, a handsome brick house about a five-minute drive from the church. They discovered Winkler’s body on the floor of the master bedroom and called the police.
Entering the bedroom, detective Roger Rickman, a 24-year veteran of the Selmer Police Department, noticed a telephone on the floor in the middle of the room, about five feet away from the victim’s feet. The device had been unplugged from its cord, a length of which was tangled up beneath Winkler’s head.
The intent, Rickman asserted in a subsequent court hearing, seemed to him as obvious at it was sinister: The telephone had been disconnected so that “someone” — such as the dying, but not yet dead, minister — “couldn’t call 911.”
Just how long it had taken Winkler, a stocky former high school football star, to bleed to death has not been entered into the record; the state medical examiner has said only that it would have been “a finite amount of time.”
For her part, Mary Winkler did not wait to find out. Nor did she telephone for help. Instead, she grabbed an extra pair of socks for the baby, loaded her children — and the shotgun — into her Toyota van and sped for the interstate.
“I was scared, sad and wanted to get out of the house” was how she explained it.
Selmer, population 4,500, sits in the southwest corner of Tennessee, a crossroads town surrounded by rolling crop and timberlands. According to civic lore, Selmer was named by a developer who wanted to honor Selma, Ala. Early on, however, it came to be spelled the way folks pronounced it, with a Tennessee twang.
Twenty miles east of here, beside the Tennessee River, the bloody Civil War battle known as Shiloh was fought. An equal distance south, at the Mississippi border, Sheriff Buford Pusser clashed in the 1960s with a collection of cutthroats and bootleggers called the State Line Mob, a violent crackdown that inspired the 1973 movie “Walking Tall.”
Selmer was incorporated in the 1890s as a way to rein in what had become a freewheeling liquor market. Nine years later, Selmer voters ran the saloons out of town altogether. Today, all of McNairy County remains dry, although it is possible to buy beer at filling stations.
Residents describe the town today as a typical county seat in the rural South. It has a struggling downtown, a thriving Wal-Mart, a handful of coffee shops and fast food outlets, a popular furniture outlet, 11 churches and, of course, no bars.
That Selmer belongs to the Bible Belt makes itself evident in all sorts of ways: the church steeples that dominate a flat skyline; the evangelical pamphlets displayed on the front desk of the Super 8 motel; the Christian fish symbol printed in a corner of a grocery store’s newspaper ads; and even graffiti.
“HELL IS HOT” is the message one tagger felt moved to paint in large block letters on a steel storage container abandoned along a four-lane highway leading out of Selmer. Inside town, on a bulletin board mounted in the lobby of the McNairy County Justice Center, another anonymous scribbler has proclaimed in red ink that “Jesus is Real” and recommended a verse from the Book of Romans:
For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
Confession and salvation were themes heard often this spring and summer as the people of Selmer sorted through the few known facts and many mysteries of what was almost universally referred to as “the Winkler tragedy.”
There were those who convinced themselves that Matthew Winkler must have done something terrible to provoke his wife. Others held the view that, no matter what the provocation, it could never justify Mary Winkler’s response.
Why didn’t she just leave him? her critics would ask. Why didn’t she consider her daughters, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old and a baby, all now in the custody of their paternal grandparents?
Many people resigned themselves to a middle course. They would follow what they considered their Christian duty and forgive Mary, offering prayers for her in church, visiting her in jail. At the same time, they were willing to let the legal system mete out justice in this realm.
“You are kind of in the Bible Belt,” said Pam Killingsworth, assistant principal at the elementary school where Mary Winkler had taught as a substitute the day before the killing. “People here try to go by the Bible. The general population in the world, they don’t believe in the Bible. It’s hard for them to accept and understand how we are dealing with this.
“We are not judge and jury. That’s up to someone else. She asked for forgiveness, and she has suffered for what she did, and it is something she is going to have to suffer for all her life. And in the end the Lord is going to take care of all of it.”
Winkler was released in mid-August on $750,000 bond. She was ordered to stay with a Church of Christ family across the state in McMinnville, where Matthew previously had served as a youth minister, until her October trial.
Prior to her release, Winkler was visited almost every Sunday by a coterie of church women and out-of-town friends. These were politely incurious visitors: Apparently none of them ever asked Winker about the circumstances that had led her to be locked on the other side of the glass partition, clad in a bulky orange jumpsuit.
“I just told her, ‘Keep praying,’ ” Killingsworth recalled one Monday at the school office, describing a typical conversation the day before.
“She said, ‘I know. God is going to take care of me.’ “
People in Selmer did not appreciate the national media interest the case attracted in the first days. But most seemed to understand it.
“We are not a crime-free zone,” said Pat Templeton, who from her bookshop filled with used romance and mystery novels commanded a picture window view of the media swarm. “But usually we don’t have wives shooting their husbands. It happens,” and here she paused, “but not a minister’s wife.”
Indeed, the idea of domestic carnage in a church parsonage seemed to have sent all of Selmer reeling for a time. Russell Ingle, who has covered the case from the start for the Selmer Independent Appeal, wrote an essay early on about how the “Unfortunate Events,” as the paper’s initial headline delicately put it, had roiled the town:
“Beauty pageants, benefits and church on Sunday are part of the very fabric in this small community…. In the wake of Matthew Winkler’s death, all things small town suddenly vanished.”
Ingle is a reporter by trade, but a preacher by training; a diploma hanging in his office identifies him as an ordained minister of the Love and Truth Church.
Other church connections cropped up often.
At the top there was the mayor of McNairy County, who turned out to be the same Wilburn Ashe who serves as elder of the Fourth Street church. There was the doctor who examined Winkler’s body, another Church of Christ elder. Killingsworth, the assistant principal, was an active volunteer in the church.
And there was the martial arts expert who ran a small gym downtown. He presented a card identifying himself as “Ronald Choate — Evangelist” and explained that he was a Church of Christ pulpit minister across the state line in Corinth, Miss.
This stocky, sandy-haired 49-year-old was an enthusiastic guide into the nuances of the denomination, his first lesson being that the term “denomination” was off-base: In the Church of Christ, individual churches are autonomous, overseen not by a central governing body, but by a handful of elders within each congregation.
In between demonstrations of joint-twisting martial arts grips, Choate provided tutorials on the vagaries of a minister’s life. He described, for instance, how from time to time it became necessary to let rip with what he called a “U-Haul Sermon” — that is, one so explosive and upsetting that it could result in the preacher being sent packing. He said it had happened to him once.
What was the topic?
Choate knew the Winkler family. He described how the slain minister’s grandfather, father and uncle had made Winkler a familiar name in Church of Christ circles, publishing a series of “workbooks” on how to lead a biblically correct life.
What animated Choate the most was a slur that had been lobbed at his church on a true-crime talk show shortly after the killing. Egged on by CNN host Nancy Grace, a Baptist pastor had characterized the Church of Christ as a “borderline cult.”
Choate fired off a furious e-mail to Grace, volunteering to fly himself at his own expense to come on air and “debate the Baptist,” chapter by chapter, verse by verse. He never heard back.
For months after Mary Winkler was indicted for murder, authorities refused to disclose any details of what she had told officers who questioned her, saying only that a “statement” had been made and that infidelity was not a motive.
In the vacuum, many dire theories took wing — child molestation, post-partum depression, spousal abuse, medication issues. The special demands placed on a minister’s wife were discussed, as was the standing of women in the Church of Christ.
“We have just as many hen-pecked husbands as anybody,” was Choate’s response to this last line of speculation.
The conversation would become considerably more informed after a court hearing in early July to consider Winkler’s bail request. Most people expected little more than a legalistic debate. That these expectations had been too low became evident from the start, when Virginia Rice, the district attorney general, entered the crowded courtroom toting a shotgun that was presumed to be the murder weapon.
To open the case against bail, an assistant prosecutor read from a coroner’s report that tabulated in clinical detail the devastation done to the minister’s body. Mary Winkler dropped her head and sobbed.
Crime scene snapshots taken by Rickman were introduced. One depicted the unplugged telephone on the floor. Another presented a close-up of Matthew Winkler’s face covered with a bloody goo, an image offered as proof that he had kept breathing for some time after his wife wiped his mouth clean and fled.
Agent Brent Booth of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation took the stand and, in a soft drawl, read aloud what was described as Mary Winkler’s statement. It began with an overview of the marriage, nine years of moving from youth ministry job to youth ministry job until Matthew finally landed the better paying pulpit position in Selmer.
“We did OK the first five years,” Booth read on. “Some problems. Then things got better. We had increased problems the last year and a half.”
The narrative jumped to the day before the killing. Mundane details were recalled — the take-out from Pizza Hut; the rented movie, “Chicken Little”; the hour the girls were tucked into bed. Then a certain vagueness intruded on the account:
Matthew began ranting, about personal things and problems regarding the church administration. And I didn’t know what set him off. I was just listening to him. He calmed down. We started the movie, and I fell asleep. He woke me up. We went to bed, sometime, probably late.
I do not know of anything he specifically said or did to upset me. But I had an uneasiness about me. I remember not sleeping well. The next morning the alarm went off at 6, 6:30, and I got up. He was still in bed. I don’t think I left the room. He had a shotgun he kept in a closet in a case. I don’t remember going to the closet, or getting the gun.
The next thing I remember was hearing a loud boom. I remember thinking that it wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be. I heard the boom, and he rolled out of bed onto the floor. And I saw some blood on the floor and some bleeding around the mouth. I went over and wiped his mouth….
When Booth finished, the courtroom was silent. Then, led by the prosecutor’s questions, the agent dropped a final bombshell. One day after they interviewed her, Booth and another TBI agent had returned to question Winkler about a new investigative development.
They had uncovered, he said, “irregularities” in her financial dealings. She had opened four checking accounts, three of them joint accounts, one in her name alone.
For months before the killing, she had been depositing checks that “were not normal,” large sums from Nigeria and Canada, about $17,500 in December alone.
She would draw cash from ATMs before these checks, presumably bogus, had time to clear the bank. “Check-kiting,” Booth called it. Finally, he said, on the day before the shooting, a bank official had called Mary Winkler to demand a meeting.
Winkler lawyer Steven Farese, a highly regarded criminal defense attorney from Mississippi whose courtroom manner seems a mix of Southern charm and sharp elbows, listened to the prosecution testimony with his head cocked, his eyes hooded. As each witness finished, he rose to his feet and started hacking away at the testimony.
“Just because you say it’s so,” Farese declared, again and again, “doesn’t make it so.”
When he was finished, it had been conceded that the shotgun was not the Winkler shotgun at all, but one that was “similar.” Investigator Rickman would admit that, no, he couldn’t say who had unplugged the telephone or why, and that, yes, it was possible it might have been done to prevent a late-night ring from waking children.
Booth was led to admit that, for all the talk of “check-kiting,” what had happened to Mary Winkler was that she had been trapped by a variation of the Nigerian scam, in which victims shell out good money on the promise it will unlock for them fantastically greater sums. It is not uncommon in these scams for the trap to be baited with what turn out to be bad checks.
Under Farese’s assault, the Mary Winkler “statement” was revealed to be a narrative composed by the investigators, based on their handwritten notes of the answers she gave to their questions.
After the hearing, Farese told reporters that, for all the revelations in court, the final word on what happened between the Winklers had not been delivered.
“There is,” he said, “a lot of room for explanation.”
In the aftermath of the fresh disclosures, people began to revisit their memories of the Winklers. Some church members would recall how, in sermons delivered shortly before his death, Matthew more than once had discussed the perils of piling up credit card debt.
“Get your priorities right,” he preached, leaving them to wonder among themselves who might have strayed.
Similarly, there had been a sermon in November 2005, at about the time the “irregular banking” began, in which his theme had been temptation: “Ever try to rationalize what you are about to do but know not to do? ‘If I do this this way, then it will be OK.’ Or, ‘Because of what others have done to me, it’s OK for me to act this way.’ “
Some merchants remembered how, when Mary Winkler shopped, she sometimes first would pick out what she wanted and then leave to go find her husband so that he could give final approval.
A neighbor described how Matthew had stood at the door the previous Halloween, monitoring his daughter as she passed out candy, one piece for each trick-or-treater. When a boy helped himself to a second piece, the minister reached into his bag and yanked it back.
That money was tight seemed to make no sense. Property records showed that the Winklers had sold their previous house in McMinnville at a $30,000 profit. The pulpit ministry position would have increased his salary to about $50,000, with the additional bonus of free housing in the parsonage. They exhibited no signs of lavish spending.
Not everybody believed Mary Winkler could have become involved in check-kiting and scams by herself. Said Kathy Thomsen, who knew the Winklers in McMinnville and who gave Mary Winkler a place to stay after she made bail: “I would nearly guarantee you he approved of every move she made. If she was doing such a bad job with the books, why didn’t he take it over?”
And there were those still convinced Matthew must have done something to bring on his own end. Perhaps, it was suggested, the answer could be found in his occasional flashes of temper, his “man of the house” notions about marriage. This pathway of speculation could lead to some dark and lurid places.
Thomsen said that in her first visit to the jail, she had advised Winkler to tell authorities ” ‘the good, the bad and the ugly. You are going to have to do that to save yourself….’ She said she would.”
Winkler’s lawyers have acknowledged that one of their challenges has been to convince her to abandon the protocol of a good, and protective, minister’s wife. She had asked arresting officers in Alabama not to smear her husband’s reputation: “Just say the lady was a moron, evil woman.”
“The way she was in that relationship after his death,” Farese said in an interview last month, “was the way she was when he was alive.”
As for the kiting of checks and entry into the Nigerian scam, the lawyer said Matthew Winkler “knew everything that was going on…. If that is the only so-called motive, we would be in terrible trouble. And we don’t think we are.”
In his elliptical way, he then began to hint at the outline of an alternative narrative, that of a woman who becomes trapped by religious culture, and maybe even fear, in marriage to an occasionally hotheaded minister who insisted on control.
“I’m not saying there was physical abuse,” Farese said. “I am saying that it plays into the overall story, once the overall story is told…. There is no greater prison than a psychological prison. You talk about what that breeds, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.”
There was much about her marriage and her last night with Matthew, Farese said, that Mary Winkler left unsaid or brushed over in her interview with investigators. But he would only go so far in filling in the blanks.
Had Matthew threatened to leave her? Farese was asked.
“It wouldn’t be him who would be leaving,” he answered.
Well then, had she threatened to leave him? Had he warned her what he might do if she tried?
“I don’t think,” the attorney said, “that would have been outside the realm of possibilities,” and for now he left it at that.
Three Fatherless Girls
County Mayor Ashe doesn’t make appointments. To see this Fourth Street Church of Christ elder, one must climb the steps to his second-floor office in the old courthouse downtown and hope that he is in and available. The trip was always worthwhile.
Seventy-one years old, with silver hair and square shoulders, Ashe has lived in Selmer all his life, working as a schoolteacher, a banker and a county administrator. He had been pulled out of semiretirement 18 months earlier after the previous county mayor — an elected chief executive — vacated the office before his term expired.
Ashe could come across as a bit gruff at first, but once he warmed to the conversation he would speak with kindness and, to a point, candor: He said he had known about the Winklers’ financial difficulties long before they were revealed in court, but had kept them to himself.
From conversations with Ashe, it became easier to understand just how desperate their situation must have seemed to the Winklers that final night. Simply walking away, as so many townsfolk suggested Mary should have done, would not have been so easy.
By the strictures of their church, divorce would not have been an option. As Ashe put it: “For fornication, adultery, yes. Financial trouble, or marry someone meaner than a junkyard dog, no. Our belief is that it is not allowed.” At a minimum, then, ending the marriage would put at risk Winkler’s ministry and reputation, the $50,000 salary, the rent-free parsonage.
At the same time, the bad checks and involvement in the scam, even if they had been all Mary’s doing, already ensured that the minister was headed for some serious trouble with the church.
“There would have been consequences,” Ashe said. “I don’t know if we’d have had to fire him or not. But it’s something we certainly would have talked to him about.”
Matthew Winkler, he said, would have known this. In fact, Ashe suspects the ranting about “church administration” Mary Winkler mentioned to investigators was Matthew spelling out what would happen to their lives once church elders found out.
Ashe said he doubted anybody from the bank would have told him about the Winklers’ banking irregularities, “at least not officially.” He did, though, work for one of the banks in question. He did, as a matter of fact, serve for a time on its advisory board. And it is a small, churchgoing town, where all aspects of civic, social and religious life seem to intersect under steeples.
So it would appear that Matthew and Mary Winkler were in it deep that night as he led her toward bed: I do not know of anything he said or did to upset me. But I had an uneasiness about me….
A deep sadness appeared to wash over Ashe’s ruddy face whenever he reflected too deeply on what happened to Matthew Winkler, an outgoing young man who had burst into Selmer with glowing references, a gift for preaching and what seemed to be an ideal, loving family.
Sometimes Ashe would sit and trace the ripples of pain stirred by the single shotgun boom Mary Winkler had said wasn’t as loud as she thought it would be — pain that coursed up and down two family trees, touched congregations from here to east Tennessee, and spread all through Selmer.
His church had been called a cult on national television. The minister recruited to replace Matthew Winkler had insisted on alternative housing, refusing to move his family into a parsonage that had known such violence. And, looming ahead in the autumn, there would be the trial, with all its garish revelations. It would be, Ashe said, “ugly.”
He could grow irritated, should an interview linger too long on forensic details, theories of motive, rumors.
“I’ve heard all the rumors,” he said one afternoon. “Some of them I know to be true. Some of them I know to be false. But I don’t want to discuss them. Ask me what I really, factually know. I know only that Matthew is dead. I know that Mary has admitted she shot him.
“I know three little girls do not have a daddy and, for all practical purposes, they don’t have a mommy, either. I know he was shot in the back. And that is all I factually know.”
As he said this, the elder’s voice rose in exasperation, as if to suggest: And isn’t that enough?