Murder in a Small Town

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.

Finding Mary

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."

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