Matthew Winkler preached from the pulpit at the 4th Street Church of Christ in Selmer, Tenn., a picturesque country town on the buckle of the Bible Belt, rich in its Southern roots.
A fifth-generation minister, he was known for having a voice full of passion and a love for the Lord that made his congregants think hard about their relationship with God.
Along with his passion, Winkler had what seemed to be an ideal family: three daughters and a wife, Mary, whom he had met at Bible College. Winkler was, by all accounts, welcomed into Mary’s family. According to Tabatha Freeman, one of Mary’s sisters, “She was really happy. They fit so well together. We’re very loud, outgoing – everyone talks at the same time – and he seemed to fit right in with that.”
Mary came from a devout Church of Christ family, where the husband is the undisputed head of the household, divorce is frowned upon and, as Winkler preached, sinners are warned they will pay for their sins.
Kevin Redmond, a deacon at the church, said that Winkler always had a smile for his congregation and that his wife was similarly accepted. “We loved her as well. It was a total package. Him and her was a total package,” he said.
The Night Everything Changed
But some of Winkler’s neighbors in the rural, pious town had a different impression of the preacher, and over time, Mary’s sisters saw a new side to him – one with a temper.
“Anything could make him mad. You wouldn’t know what it was. And you couldn’t tell because it was always like ‘Mary, go to the other room,'” Freeman said. In fact, she continued, he spoke to Mary “€¦ the way you would think a very stern father would talk to his child. And that disturbs me because I don’t see that being a happy marriage.”
No one could foresee the tragedy that was about to unfold. One spring night, Winkler didn’t show up for the weekly Wednesday night service at the church. Concerned, Redmond and the church elders went to his house.
The deacon described the horrifying scene inside the master bedroom, the kind of scene that just doesn’t happen in a sleepy town like Selmer. “I saw Matthew laying there on his back, the covers of the bed were all under him. €¦ The foam was protruding from his mouth and nose and we knew pretty obviously that he was dead at that time.”
The 31-year-old preacher had been shot in the back with a shotgun and left on the floor to die, choking on his own blood. His wife and daughters were nowhere to be found. Redmond and the elders assumed they had been abducted, and Selmer police put out a nationwide Amber Alert while the town anxiously awaited any news, hoping they would be found unharmed.
The night after the discovery of Winkler’s body, Officer Jason Whitlock of Orange Beach, Ala., a town hundreds of miles away, identified the missing minivan, wondering whether authorities would find Mary and the girls kidnapped, or worse, dead.
To his surprise, he found Mary and the girls unharmed. “There’s four police cars around you. They’ve got a gun pulled on you. You would be scared most likely and you would probably want to know, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ She never asked one question. She never looks scared to me. It was almost like she was expecting it to happen.”
What followed turned Mary from a victim to a suspect in a matter of seconds. Inside the car, police discovered the shotgun that had killed her husband. Furthermore, her recorded interrogation sounded a lot like a confession.
“I have obviously done something very bad so let me just, you know, be the, get the bad. That would be my request,” she said. Detective Stan Stabler interrogated Mary, and asked her why she did it a question Mary never really answered. She continued. “I love him dearly, but gosh, he just nailed me in the ground. I just took it like a mouse.”
Stabler had what he considered a confession. She told him, “My ugly came out. I made the choice to do something that was evil and was wrong and illegal.”
Strangely enough, through the course of her interrogation, Mary kept expressing her concern for Winkler’s reputation. And back home in Selmer, the news that the preacher’s wife would stand trial for murder sparked a media sensation.
The Secrets Behind Closed Doors
The question why was still unanswered, but prosecutor Walt Freeland had a theory greed. He said Mary was involved in a series of financial schemes that she had hid from her husband.
The defense had a different theory: dark, perverted family secrets involving pornography, violence, sodomy and child abuse. Secrets that would shake the faith of the Bible Belt town of Selmer to its core.
According to Mary, Winkler threatened her with a shotgun many times, kicked her in the face and asked her to engage in sex acts she found to be “unnatural.” It was a very different picture than the ideal public image the couple portrayed at the church.
Mary’s father, Clark Freeman, suspected something terribly wrong was going on but was unsure exactly what. He said, “I tried to persuade her to leave him. She just did not want to. And she would hang her head and shake it, ‘No daddy, no daddy. €¦ I’m going to work it out.'”
To many of the jurors on the case, the recording of Mary’s interrogation was an admission that she had fatally shot Winkler on purpose.
Even though the case seemed straightforward, Mary’s big-city attorneys, Steve Farese and Leslie Ballin, were about to turn the case around.
They argued that Mary was the victim, that Mary was “his whipping boy,” Farese said. The lawyers also found witnesses who saw glimpses of this dark side of Winkler. In fact, one of the Winklers’ neighbors nicknamed him the “Tasmanian devil,” because his explosive temper had earned him a reputation on their street.
Mary testified about Winkler’s threats to kill her in graphic ways, his physical and emotional abuse. She told the jury of the painful sexual acts he’d make her engage in, but there were no police reports, she never confided in anyone. There was nothing for the jury to go on but Mary’s word and pornographic photos found on the Winkler’s computer.
According to church doctrine, divorce wasn’t really an option for Mary not if Winkler wanted to keep his position in the church. The defense seemed to be convincing the jury that Mary was indeed abused, but convincing jurors that his behavior justified a killing was another story.
There was, however, one more chilling family secret to come out in the trial.
The Tipping Point
Mary recounted the events of the night she shot Winkler in the back. Her story began with them in bed, asleep. Mary said her daughter Brianna’s crying woke them up, but Winkler kicked her out of their bed and walked out of the room. According to Mary, past experience had taught her that Winkler had a cruel way of silencing their crying children. She explained that he would cover their babies’ mouths and noses, momentarily suffocating them, to get them to stop crying.
That night, Mary wouldn’t take Winkler’s methods anymore. She said she “just wanted to talk to Matthew. €¦ I just wanted him to stop being so mean.” So she grabbed his shotgun, intent on getting him to listen.
The next thing she remembers is hearing the gun go off and seeing him lying on the floor, bleeding. She didn’t call 911, and she didn’t try to help him. Instead, she fled with her daughters to Alabama.
“I just thought something terrible had happened and nobody would believe that was an accident and I’d just lose the girls,” she said. Mary made the shocking claim that the shotgun had fired accidentally.
The jury of 10 women and two men was split – one group of women wanted Mary to go free. Others, including but not limited to the men, thought murder in the first degree was the way to go. After eight hours of deliberation, the jury found Mary guilty of voluntary manslaughter. She would not spend the rest of her life in jail. She had a chance at a new life.
Even more surprising was the judge’s sentence, which after credit for time already served, amounted to only one more week in county jail, and 60 days in a facility with counseling services. The argument that Mary was a battered wife was successful.
Saying that she was caught in a vicious cycle of abuse, Mary addressed the court at sentencing and said, “I think of Matthew every day and the guilt, and I’ll always miss him and love him. There were bad times but there were good times, and I wish I could have that good Matthew and we could live together forever.”
The jury foreman, Bill Berry, and some of the other jurors thought she deserved a stiffer sentence. “Mary, you’re going to have to live [with] yourself the rest of your life. And then you’re going to have to face God and judgement.”
To Mary, though, God had everything to do with it. “I’m convinced God put me in this place for a reason,” she said.