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Minister’s slaying, wife’s arrest deal double tragedy

Under the glare of intense national media spotlight, small-town Tennessee church mourns preacher’s death and offers forgiveness to his jailed widow.

SELMER, Tenn. — On the Sunday after members found minister Matthew Winkler shot to death in his home, a shaken Sharon Pinckley arrived to teach the first- and second-grade Bible class at the Fourth Street Church of Christ.

Across the hall from her class, though, she discovered that no one had thought to find a replacement teacher for the 2- and 3-year-olds.

The Winkler family

That was the class usually taught by Mary Winkler, Matthew’s wife and the mother of their three daughters: Breanna, 1; Mary Alice, 6; and Patricia, 8.

“That was unnerving for me to go downthere and realize that no one had gotten a teacher,” Pinckley said.

As the congregation in this small town 80 miles east of Memphis came together to grieve and pray, Mary Winkler sat in a jail cell a few blocks away — charged with first-degree murder in her husband’s death.

Through a church member who visited her in jail, Mary Winkler apologized and asked for forgiveness, elder Wilburn Gene Ashe said.

“I think she needs to pay the penalty for what she’s done. But if she’s asked forgiveness from the Lord, he’s forgiven her,” Ashe told The Christian Chronicle. “If he’s forgiven her, I have to. Whether she’s sincere or not, that’s between her and the Lord.”

Not a normal Sunday

Any other Sunday, a jolly Matthew Winkler would have welcomed members, as he loved to do, “to the best place tobe on the best day of the week.”

A smiling Mary Winkler would have let members take turns holding and fawning over her baby girl. The entire Winkler family would have looked picture perfect as they left to eat Sunday lunch.

But on this Sunday, police stood watch outside, making sure none of the throng of television and newspaper cameras stationed down the street got too close.

A bouquet of 62 multicolored flowers —representing each child in the congregation and donated in Matthew Winkler’s memory — adorned the pulpit.

As normal, members received a folded white bulletin. But the space under the “minister” heading was blank. Winkler’s picture appeared below these words: “In loving memory of our minister, our brother, and our friend.”

A photo collage of all five Winkler family members decorated one hallway: Matthew Winkler smiling, holding plates of food at a fellowship meal. His daughters posing with kittens. Their mother beaming as she lifted baby Breanna up to the sky.

Teary-eyed church members shared hugs and sang songs such as “No Tears in Heaven” as they sought comfort in God’sword and each other.

A congregation’s nightmare

For the Fourth Street church, the nightmare began when Matthew Winkler failed to show up for Wednesday night services.

A worried look on his face, Ashe stood up and announced that the congregation would sing until Winkler arrived to teach.

“This is very unlike Matthew to just not show up,” Ashe added.

Ashe suggested that Winkler may have gone to visit a hospitalized member in Memphis and run into traffic. Members tried calling the Winkler home — and the couple’s cell phones — but no one answered. When the devotional time came, the minister still hadn’t arrived.

Someone mentioned that the girls had been absent from school. Church secretary Betty Wilkerson added that Matthew Winkler hadn’t picked up his office mail.

A few members headed to the Winklers’ church-owned home a few miles away and used a key to enter. They found him in a bedroom — a single shotgun wound to the back. He had bled to death.

With the family’s minivan missing, authorities began searching for Mary Winkler and the girls. Less than 24 hours later, police found them unharmed in Orange Beach, Ala., 340 miles away.

Mary Winkler was charged with first-degree murder after she confessed, authorities said. No motive had been made public at press time.

The story immediately fed a national media frenzy, from live national broadcasts of Mary Winkler’s court appearances to a People magazine cover story with the banner headline: “The Minister’s Shooting: WHY DID SHE KILL HIM?”

“It has been a disturbing thing, but we understand that they’re doing their job,” Ashe said of the media.

Eventually, however, church leaders stopped granting interviews.

“Until we know anything else,” Ashe said, “we don’t feel like it’s in the best interests of the community or the church to rehash the thing over and over.”

God’s comfort

At the first service after Matthew Winkler’s body was found, church leaders urged members to refrain from speculating on the “why” behind his death.

“The simple fact is that no one knows why, except for maybe Mary herself,” deacon Robert Shackleford said, warning that speculation could fuel unhealthy gossip and rumors.

Ashe urged members to “remain close to God and close to one another.” That’s the only way, he said, the congregation will overcome the tragedy. While much remains unknown, Ashe said, “There are three little girls, we know, that do not have a daddy right now and, for all practical purposes, they don’t have a momma.”

A judge granted Matthew Winkler’s parents, Dan and Diane Winkler, custody of the children. Dan Winkler is minister of the Huntingdon Church of Christ in Tennessee. Matthew Winkler’s grandfather, Wendell Winkler, who died last year, was well-known for his 60-year career as a minister.

In Matthew Winkler’s absence, guest preacher Jeremy Weekley assured the congregation that God understands his people’s grief and offers comfort to them.

Weekley, dean of student life at Freed-Hardeman University, read from Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Filed under: Mary Winkler Matthew Winkler News Top Stories

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