The Pastor's Wife: The True Story of a Minister and the Shocking Death that Divided a Family

The Pastor's Wife: The True Story of a Minister and the Shocking Death that Divided a Family

by Diane Fanning


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When Pastor Matthew Winkler was found dead at his Fourth Street Church of Christ parsonage in Selmer, Tennessee, both police investigators and parishioners were shaken and mystified: How could evil strike this cradle of faith? Meanwhile, Mrs. Winkler and her three daughters were still missing…

A frantic search for Mary Winkler and the girls ensued. Once they were found, on a beach in Alabama, Mary was charged with murdering her husband in cold blood. But why did Mary pull the trigger? What sexual and psychological abuses did she allege she had suffered?

In the months that followed, the crime—and the Winkler's marriage—would be exposed by the national media; Mary herself even appeared on Oprah. Set in a world of domineering men, obedient wives, and unshakable faith, this is the true story about what happened to Matthew Winkler and THE PASTOR'S WIFE

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250249722
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/04/2008
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 829,806
Product dimensions: 4.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

DIANE FANNING is the author of the Edgar Award finalist Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and a Deadly 16-Year-Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart, as well as several other true-crime books (available from St. Martin’s) and the Secret City mystery series. She lives in Bedford, Virginia.

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By 6:45 on the evening of Wednesday, March 22, 2006, uneasiness crept like a surreptitious fog over the leaders of Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, Tennessee. The bulk of the congregation at the mid-week Bible Study was oblivious to their concerns. The adult church members sat in pews or stood in aisles chatting with friends and unwinding before the service. The children were in classrooms in the lower level of the building, participating in age-appropriate classes.

The preacher, Matthew Winkler, and his wife, Mary, should have been among those chatting in the sanctuary, and their three daughters should have been with the other children. But they were not. And Matthew had not called any one of the elders or deacons, or the church secretary to explain his family's absence, or give a reason for their delay.

An elder telephoned the church-owned parsonage about a mile away, but no one answered. He must be on his way, one elder assured another. They checked the parking lot and looked up the street — no sign of the Winkler family.

Five minutes passed. They placed another call to the parsonage — still no answer. A family emergency? another elder wondered. "Maybe Matthew went to visit Mary Anne in the hospital in Memphis and got caught up in bad traffic," Elder Ashe suggested. They all knew, though, that Matthew Winkler was responsible. If he had to leave town — even under the direst circumstances — he would have called someone.

Another five minutes crawled by. Even if the Winklers had stepped out the door just as the first call rang in their home — or even if they were still inside, but had decided not to answer it, since they were running late — they would have reached the church by now.

The elder called the parsonage again. No answer.

Pam Killingsworth, vice principal at Selmer Elementary, where two of the Winkler girls attended school, was in the church nursery caring for babies and toddlers that night. Her brother Wayne stuck his head in the door checking to see if the littlest Winkler was there. She wasn't. He asked Pam if the older daughters had been in school that day.

"No," she said. "And the girls didn't come to their music classes after school, either. What's wrong?"

Wayne shook his head and left. The church leaders' anxiety now had a foothold in the nursery.

Seven o'clock. Time for Bible Study to begin. One last call to the Winklers. Nothing. The elders decided to start the service. He'll still come, they hoped and prayed.

The assigned song leader, a worried Wilburn Ashe, stepped in front of the congregation, and the buzz of conversation ceased. He said that they would sing until Pastor Winkler arrived to teach, and then announced the page number of the first hymn. A capella voices rose in unison from the pew — no instruments were allowed in the church.

After opening prayer, the service continued with scripture reading and the Wednesday night devotional. On this night, they lifted up their voices in song and made a more joyful noise unto the Lord than usual, to fill the gap where the preacher's Bible Study would have been.

Wilburn and another church elder, Dr. Drew Eason, took a trip to the parsonage during the service, but found no one at home. They slipped back into the sanctuary while the service was in progress.

At the end of the service, Matthew Winkler's where-abouts were still unknown. Wilburn wondered aloud again about the possibility that Matthew was visiting Mary Anne Wilson in Memphis. Church secretary Betty Wilkerson expressed her concern that Matthew did not pick up his office mail that day.

Drew, James Turner, Randy Smith, Kevin Redmon and Drew's 15-year-old son went back to the parsonage on Mollie Drive and checked all the doors and windows. Everything was locked up tight. The television set was on in the living room. They heard the telephone ringing inside the home, but no one answered. They returned to Fourth Street.

At the church, leaders called the parsonage yet again. They called Matthew's and Mary's cell numbers. They prayed while the phones rang, but they did not receive the answer they devoutly desired.

Something's wrong. The potential dangers that waited outside their sanctuary swarmed like agitated demons through their thoughts — the tenets of their religion painted society as a sinful place full of temptation and evil. They were urged to be "in the world" but not "of the world" — and now that world threatened theirs. Calls went out to members of Matthew's and Mary's families and neighbors. No one knew where they were.

With the help of the secretary, the elders searched the church office for keys. As they looked, they reassured each other that it was just a big mix-up — Matthew had told someone he'd be out of town, and that person dropped the ball. They would find nothing at the preacher's house, and later they would laugh with him about their fears.

They located a ring of unmarked keys, and headed back out the church doors, hoping one would open the house where maybe — hopefully — they'd find answers.

They hung a left at West Court Avenue and continued to the fork in the road, bearing left onto East Poplar Avenue. Just past the sprawling fifties-era Selmer Elementary School, they turn left on lovely, serene Mollie Drive. Headlights brushed the branches of the tall winterstark trees and illuminated the green of the budding new leaves. The promise of another glorious spring mocked their fears as they drove to the brick ranch parsonage.

The home sat off the road on a small rise. Pulling into the driveway, headlights scanned across its windows and doors, revealing no signs of any turmoil inside its walls. The absence of the family mini-van was cause for relief. The Winklers must have left town.

They tried all the keys in the front door lock and then moved to the back, but none of them worked. Drew stepped into the unlocked storage room on the carport, hoping to find a key tucked away in case the Winklers accidentally locked themselves out of the house. He found a small handful in a tackle box. One of those slipped into the back door and clicked as the bolt released. They entered the den of the tidy home around 9 P.M.

"Matthew, Mary! Is anyone home?" they called out. Their voices echoed in the silence of the quiet home.

A light burned in the den, but most of the rest of the house lay in darkness. They flipped switches on as they walked past the kitchen on their right, past the bathroom on their left and out into the hallway. Stepping through the doorway, they split up. Some turned toward the living room; the rest moved down the hall, checking out the three bedrooms. They saw no one or nothing to cause alarm. Then Randy Smith entered the glow of the light issuing from the master bedroom.

Sprawled on the floor beside the bed was the body of Matthew Winkler — their charismatic, dynamic preacher — lying on his back in a dried circle of blood, the covers from the bed lumped under his body. Clad in the T-shirt and old shorts he wore to sleep, it was apparent Matthew had not started his day that morning.

Randy shouted to Drew, the medical doctor of the group. Drew knelt by Matthew's side. Blood-tinged froth crusted the preacher's mouth and nostrils. His skin was ashen and cold. Drew felt his neck for a pulse and found nothing. Drew's shoulders sagged. He looked up at Randy with agrimace and shook his head. Matthew Winkler, a mere 31 years old, was dead. Drew and Randy returned to the den, where Drew picked up the phone and punched in 9-1-1. He reported the death of Matthew Winkler and the disappearance of his family.

The hearts of all four men filled with dread: If someone had the strength and stealth to kill their tall, athletic preacher, what hope was there for his wife and three little girls? They joined hands and lifted their voices in prayer.

While waiting for officials to arrive, they searched the basement in case a family member had sought refuge there and needed their help. They feared finding Mary Winkler's body — or even worse, the tiny bodies of 8-year-old Patricia, 6-year-old Allie or 1-year-old Breanna. While looking, they prayed that all of them were still alive.

The group explored every closet, the underside of each bed, every inch of the basement and main floor. There was no one else — dead or alive — inside the parsonage walls. But where were they?


The men found no answers to their questions about Mary and the girls.

Across the street, Sharyn Everitt's adult daughter looked out the front window and said, "What in the world is going on at the preacher's house?"

Sharyn herself looked out and saw four cars parked at the neighbors' house, then heard the first siren. A police cruiser and an ambulance turned onto Mollie Drive with flashing lights and shrieking wails, disrupting the peace of the quiet neighborhood. They drove up to the parsonage less than ten minutes after receiving the call from Drew.

Officers Tony Westbanks and Tony Miller of the Selmer Police Department made a quick assessment of the situation inside the master bedroom. They ushered the church members out into the front yard and called Police Chief Neal Burks.

The chief wanted twenty-year veteran detective Roger Rickman on the scene, but Roger had spent the day at home sick in bed, so miserable that he'd turned off his cell phone. When Burks called his detective and was routed straight to voicemail, he sent a police car to the Rickman house. An officer woke Roger, who rose, dressed, and arrived on Mollie Drive before 10 o'clock.

He entered the parsonage's master bedroom and saw Matthew Winkler on the floor beside the bed with bloody saliva coming from his mouth and nose. On the bed, he saw another splotch of blood. A telephone drew his eyes away from the body. It sat on the floor out of Matthew's reach. The cord was not attached to the receiver — it would have been useless, even if the victim had been able to crawl and pick it up.

Roger photographed the room and the body, and reported the obvious signs of foul play to the police chief. Burks called for support from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). He knew a homicide investigation required experienced, expert forensic technicians. There simply wasn't enough violent crime in his town for his department to staff a team and a lab for forensic analysis. Less than half an hour after his arrival, Roger exited the home to await the state crime-scene investigators and technicians.

Questions arose in every mind. Where was Mary Winkler? Where were the three little girls? The members of law enforcement on the scene asked each other: Was Mary a perpetrator or a victim? Although an abduction scenario was possible, there were no signs of forced entry, and only the master bedroom showed any signs of disarray.

The church members who knew Mary could not imagine that she was responsible. All four members of Matthew's family had to have been kidnapped. Their thoughts turned to the many people who called to the preacher for help in times of need. Many were decent folks down on their luck. Others were drug users or worse, trying to take advantage of Matthew's compassion. Perhaps he denied assistance to someone who shot him in anger and abducted the family in a state of panic or a paroxysm of greed. The congregation waited for the ransom call.

Whether or not Mary played a role in her husband's death, one fact was apparent: Danger hung heavy over the three missing children. There was a long history of parents killing their progeny before committing suicide in similar situations.

Roger talked to Rodney Weaver, director of the West Tennessee Task Force. Weaver immediately got busy. His "number one concern" was finding the wife and children alive. But in the back of his mind, he had "a feeling that Mary Winkler was a suspect."

Sharyn Everitt and her daughter kept returning to the window to gaze out at the commotion across Mollie Drive. Within an hour, the street was lined with police vehicles.

Sharyn's mind flashed on a paranoid possibility: What if someone is targeting preachers? She called her pastor and told him what had happened, sharing her concern and urging him to be careful.

At 11 P.M., Special Agent Donna Nelson, forensic scientist for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, was called to duty at her home in Memphis. She phoned her team members, Lauren James, Erica Catherine and Francesca Sanders. They met at the Memphis Regional Crime Lab, loaded the Violent Crime Response Team truck and drove to Selmer.

Agent Chris Carpenter of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation walked into the house at 11:55 P.M. Carpenter observed the body and lifted up the front of Matthew's shirt. There he found a single shotgun pellet. After photographing it in place, he sealed it in an evidence bag. He rolled the victim over and saw a gunshot wound in the middle of the preacher's back.

Carpenter collected items he thought might prove useful for finding the children: the victim's cell phone, billfold and personal items, as well as a family portrait. The photograph he selected was less than a year old. It displayed a happy family of five, all with brown eyes and brown hair. Matthew, the 30-year-old father, was tall, robust, with a strong jaw line, forceful chin and an engaging smile. By his side was his petite 31-yearold wife with a pixie-like face stretched wide with an infectious grin. In her arms she held the newest family addition, infant Breanna. In front of them, the two other daughters stood wearing identical sailor-styled dresses. The oldest girl, 8-year-old Patricia, had darker shoulder-length hair, a mischievous smile and a broad face that resembled her father's. The middle child, Allie, had a lighter shade of hair and wore a thoughtful expression on a tiny face with pointed chin that looked just like her mother's. Carpenter headed out to scan the photo onto a computer and issue an AMBER Alert.

When the forensic team first arrived at the scene, Nelson spoke to Chief Burks and then entered the home to perform a walk-through with Agent Carpenter. She briefed her team and all four went inside to thoroughly sketch, photograph and videotape the crime scene.

Documentation complete, they located, marked and collected evidence — keeping it, for the time, inside the home. In Patricia and Allie's bedroom, testing revealed the presence of bloodstains on a pillow on each of the twin beds. The investigators confiscated both.

In the master bedroom, they took swabs from under Matthew's body and from the sheet on the bed. They bagged the sheet from the floor beside the victim.

In the kitchen, they identified a smear of blood in the trash can and took a swab as evidence. They tagged three computers and various papers in other parts of the home for collection. They hoped to locate a possible murder weapon, but none was found.


One of the church elders placed a phone call to the Freeman home in Knoxville. Mary's father Clark woke to answer the beckoning ring. "Matthew's been shot. He's dead. Your daughter and the three girls are missing." Clark was immediately certain they'd been kidnapped.

Dan and Diane Winkler, Matthew's parents, did not receive the frantic calls to their residence. They were vacationing in a rented cabin near Gatlinburg, a small town surrounded on three sides by the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

They had awoken that Wednesday morning to a wispy, smoke-like fog winding its tendrils around the ridges on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Dan and Diane spent the day basking in the glory of God's creation — a peaceful interlude of contemplation, spiritual renewal and celebration. Today, March 22, was Dan Winkler's birthday.

In the last hour of that lovely day, the shrill ring of the telephone jarred them out of their contentment. For Dan and Diane, like most everyone, a late-night call stirred up dread. No one would call at this time of night unless it was bad news.

Their youngest son, Jacob, carried the burden of delivering the news of his brother's death to his father. Dan had no time to absorb that horrific reality before Jacob hit him with another. Their son's wife and their three little granddaughters were missing.

Diane knew the news was bad by the expression on her husband's face. When he hung up the phone, he turned to her. "Diane, you need to sit down."

"I don't want to sit down. I want to know what's going on."

"Matthew's been shot."

"Is he okay? Where was he?" Diane asked in a panicked voice.

"He's at home. He's been shot in the back."

"Danny, he's okay, right? He's okay?"


Excerpted from "The Pastor's Wife"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Diane Fanning.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Discovery,
The Lives,
The Downfall,
The Judgment,
The Reverberations,

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