SELMER – A church elder on Thursday testified that he and other church members went to their parsonage to check on their minister, Matthew Winkler, when he didn’t show up to teach his bible class on March 22.
“It was very unusual,” said Dr. Greg Eason, an elder at Selmer’s Fourth Street Church of Christ. “He was (usually) very prompt.”
After searching for a key, Eason said he and two other adult church members and his then 15-year-old son were able to enter the residence. He was in the living room when he was called to the master bedroom where Matthew Winkler’s body was found.
“Matthew was obviously dead at that time,” Eason said. “He was lying on his back next to the bed.”
Eason was one of four witnesses who testified Thursday in a motion hearing for Matthew Winkler’s widow, Mary Winkler, in McNairy County Circuit Court.
Mary Winkler, 32, faces a first-degree murder charge in her husband’s shooting death. She has pleaded not guilty and is currently free on bond, living and working in McMinnville.
Thursday’s hearing concerned a motion by Mary Winkler’s defense attorneys to suppress evidence seized from the couple’s home after Matthew Winkler’s body was discovered.
Attorney Steve Farese said the motion was filed because evidence gathered from the parsonage was obtained without a search warrant.
“We’re asking that any items taken without a search warrant should be suppressed and that any derivative evidence be suppressed, including evidence gathered by the (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s) crime response team without a search warrant,” Farese said during his closing arguments before McNairy County Circuit Court Judge Weber McCraw.
McCraw took the testimony presented Thursday under advisement and said he would rule on the motion at a later time.
Eason, who also served as Matthew Winkler’s physician, said church members found a spare set of house keys in a tackle box in the storage house that allowed them to enter the parsonage.
Eason said that he and the other church members noticed that the telephone had been unplugged and that he told someone to call 911 because it looked as though ”foul play” was involved.
He said he and the other church members were in the den for several minutes after officers arrived, a fact that defense Attorney Steve Farese pointed to as evidence that the crime scene had been compromised.
Evidence collected at the home include pillows, a bed sheet from the body of Matthew Winkler, swabs from a garbage can and bed sheets, a shot gun pellet, three computers, printing paper and checks.
Among the evidence collected was a copy of a check, a canceled check found in a box in the Winklers’ youngest child’s bedroom and a check from the garbage can outside.
One of those checks was made payable to Mary Winkler “from a non-existent entity” for a little more than $6,400.
“It will be brought out that the financial situation of the Winklers was brought on by Mrs. Winkler,” Assistant District Attorney General Walter Freeland said Thursday. “The financial records could have been obtained without any document found in the home.”
Defense attorneys have said that the Winklers were the victims of a “Nigerian-type scam,” in which people are asked to pay advance fees to receive supposed lottery winnings. The TBI, however, has said that Mary Winkler was involved in check-kiting, which involves writing a check on one bank, depositing it at another bank and then withdrawing the funds before the check clears.
Freeland called four witnesses to the stand Thursday to prove to McCraw that after the crime scene was processed, search warrants were obtained. He said many of the items found outside of the bedroom were not expected to be presented during the trial.
Other witnesses who testified Thursday included Investigator Roger Rickman, of the Selmer Police Department, who said he took pictures of the crime scene.
Rickman testified that no search warrant was issued before he left the scene at 3 a.m. the following morning, but he said the Selmer police officers were in control of the scene.
When agents from TBI arrived at the scene, they “took a family portrait to issue an Amber Alert (to locate Mary Winkler and her three kids),” Rickman said Thursday.
Rodney Weaver, the head of the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, said that when he arrived at the scene, he began doing everything he knew to do to find Mary Winkler and her children.
“I just knew they weren’t there (at the parsonage),” Weaver said Thursday. “My primary objective was to find Mrs. Winkler and those three kids alive. I didn’t know if they had been abducted or not.”
Weaver said that he contacted a representative at Regions Bank in Selmer the following morning after learning that Mary Winkler had an account there. He obtained a hard copy of her bank account after the records were subpoenaed the morning after the homicide. He said that he doesn’t remember how or where he obtained her account information, but he did remember that he only checked her account, not Matthew Winkler’s.
When Farese asked Weaver why he didn’t check Matthew Winkler’s account to see if anyone had accessed it, Weaver replied, “In my opinion, I had a feeling that (Mary Winkler) was a suspect.”
Weaver also stated that he didn’t hear about a search warrant being present at the scene and that he didn’t see one.
TBI Special Agent Chris Carpenter, the case agent, said that after observing the crime scene, he collected a family portrait and a cell phone from the den, a billfold with a money clip off the top of the dresser in the Winklers’ bedroom and a shotgun pellet that had been removed from under the shirt that Matthew Winkler had on.
Carpenter said that he didn’t give Weaver any account information because Weaver was the one who gave it to him. He also stated that he went to the bank with Weaver and never asked him where the information came from.
“(Records showed) that the account had been used at a barbecue place in Corinth, Miss., a couple of days before (the homicide occurred), but not since then,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said that search warrants were eventually obtained to remove the items from the parsonage.