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Town looks for answers in preacher's killing

By Ann O'Neill
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SELMER, Tennessee (CNN) -- For three months, the 4,500 souls of this God-fearing town were left to wonder how, if what the police said was true, a demure preacher's wife could shoot her husband in the back and run off to the beach with their three girls.

Mary Carol Winkler, 32, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to killing the charismatic new preacher of the Fourth Street Church of Christ. She asked for forgiveness and and the congregation has turned the other cheek.

But the residents of Selmer haven't come close to understanding why it might have happened.

"What would cause a godly woman to do such a thing?" asked neighbor Sharon Everitt, echoing the question that has hung over the rural town since late March. "Christians don't shoot Christians."

A bond hearing Friday brought to light facts that might help the people of Selmer better understand -- or test their faith anew.

The suggested motives seemed less profound than worldly.

An investigator read from a statement Mary Winkler gave police after her arrest. She said that after a quarrel with her husband over family finances she "snapped" under the weight of what she said was his constant criticism. (Watch as the statement is read in court -- 1:21 )

"I was upset at him because he had really been on me lately, criticizing me for things -- the way I walk, what I eat, everything. It was just building up to this point. I was just tired of it. I guess I just got to a point and snapped." (Full story)

Before Friday's hearing, police had not revealed what Mary Winkler had told them after her arrest.

About 80 miles east of Memphis, Selmer is "a five stoplight town," as one local businessman put it. Houses still sell for $40,000, piglets are offered in the local newspaper for $15 apiece, and if a pizza parlor owner wants to serve beer, it stirs up a fuss.

There's plenty of petty crime to keep lawmen busy, but murders don't happen very often in McNairy County's seat of government.

Everybody knows everybody else and strangers -- especially big city news people in rental cars with Arkansas tags -- draw suspicious stares.

Beginning to make his mark

Churches big and small are everywhere. The white steeple of the First Baptist Church towers over the main drag, renamed the Buford Pusser Highway in honor of the legendary sheriff whose efforts to drive out gamblers and moonshiners was dramatized in the 1973 film "Walking Tall."

Down a side street, across from an auto supply store, sits a modest brick church with pansies planted by the steps -- the Fourth Street Church of Christ.

Here, third-generation preacher Matthew Winkler, a strapping 31-year-old with a booming voice and charisma to burn, was beginning to make his mark after little more than a year. He had a knack for connecting with younger members, who called him "Wink."

On March 22, four church members -- including a doctor and the town undertaker -- let themselves in to the tidy brick parsonage on Mollie Street when Winkler didn't show up for Wednesday evening services.

They found him in the master bedroom. He had been shot in the back with a 12-gauge shotgun.

The following day police in Orange Beach, Alabama, pulled Mary Winkler over in the family's minivan. Wearing a pink sweat suit and flip flops, she had just checked into a motel.

She answered their questions, giving what police call a confession. Defense attorneys dispute that characterization.

She was arrested, sent back to Tennessee and indicted last month on a single charge of premeditated murder. An October 30 trial date has been set.

Her daughters -- Patricia, 8, Mary Alice, 6, and Breanna, 1 -- are a big reason Mary Winkler is seeking her freedom, her lawyers say. The girls are living with Matthew Winkler's parents in Huntingdon, Tennessee.

'Talk of the town'


"It's just puzzling to me," Selmer Police Chief Neal Burks says.

Church members and other locals, including some who spoke freely about the case in the past, had little to say to outsiders Thursday. It wasn't that they were unwilling or impolite. They were just busy with other things and "unavailable," they said.

Selmer Police Chief Neal Burks took time to talk, saying he plans to be in court "as an observer." Burks has been the chief for 10 years. Before that, he was on the state highway patrol. Nothing in his experience has come close to the Winkler case.

"It's been the talk of the town," he said, sitting in his paneled office tucked in the back of Selmer's single story City Hall. "We've just got a nice, quiet little town here. I think this was all blown out of proportion because it was a preacher and a preacher's wife."

Now the "talk of the town" that a judge might set bond for Winkler troubles the veteran lawman.

"It's just puzzling to me," he said." I don't know how to take it or anything."

Across the street from where the Winklers lived, Sharon Everitt has no problem with Mary Winkler going free.

Neighbors: Preacher was abrupt

"She could come in here, she could sleep in my bed, live in my house," Everitt said. "She is not a danger to anybody." At the time of the slaying, Everitt recalled, the Winklers were portrayed as the perfect couple. The day he died, she said, Matthew Winkler "got elevated to sainthood."

Everitt and her husband, Dan, said they saw another side to Matthew Winkler that troubled them. After their rottweiler, Madison, wandered into the Winklers' yard, the preacher threatened to shoot the dog.

They found his behavior rude and aggressive, they said. Mary Winkler stepped back as her husband spoke, as if to signal she did not agree with his approach, Sharon Everitt recalled.

"I remember saying to myself, 'This is not new neighbor behavior. This is not preacher behavior. What is this aggression?' Boy, I betcha he's fun to live with," she said.

Sharon Everitt said Mary Winkler was friendly on the surface, but likely isolated and under extraordinary pressure. In the past year she lost her mother to cancer, had a baby and followed her husband to a town that doesn't exactly embrace newcomers.

"When you're new here, you're new forever," Everitt said. "The people in this town are so nice, but they are a family. If they are not in some way related to one another, they have known each other all their lives.

"There are people here whose great-grandchildren are still playing with the great-grandchildren of people they went to school with. "

"You're not really excluded," she said, "you're just not included."

Add the isolation of having to be a role model as the preacher's wife, Everitt said, and "you just have to feel sorry" for Mary Winkler.

"It keeps her from having true friends. To me, a friend is someone you can call at 2 o'clock in the morning, squalling and bawling your eyes out at whatever trauma is going on. Now tell me, can a minister's wife ever do that?"


Mary Winkler, a mother of three, is charged with the intentional murder of her preacher husband.



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