Authorities: Family of Slain Tenn. Church Minister Found

SELMER, Tenn. (AP) - A popular and charismatic Tennessee minister was found shot to death in his parsonage, and his wife and three young daughters were found safe in Alabama on Thursday after a daylong search.

Church members went looking for 31-year-old Matthew Winkler when he did not show up for an evening service at the Fourth Street Church of Christ. They used a key to enter the parsonage and found him dead in a bedroom late Wednesday, Police Chief Neal Burks said. Winkler's family was gone, along with their minivan.

There were no signs of forced entry at the parsonage, authorities said.

The other family members were found Thursday night in southern Alabama when a police officer saw their van parked along a road and pulled over to help.

Authorities said they were alone in the van.

Winkler's wife, Mary, "hasn't been arrested," said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson. "We want to talk to her and find out what she knows" about the slaying of her husband.

The bureau issued an Amber Alert early Thursday for the couple's daughters, Breanna, 1; Mary Alice, 6; and Patricia, 8. The alert said the girls might be with their mother.

All were in good physical condition when they were found in Orange Beach, Ala., about 400 miles south of Selmer.

Johnson said investigators had learned about 1 1/2 hours before the family members were found that they might be in southern Alabama or the Florida Panhandle.

Mary Winkler had last been seen late Tuesday afternoon picking up the children from school, said Ed Jones, TBI assistant director. Burks said she worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary school.

"We're just so relieved that the kids were found safe and now we can focus on the next task" of solving the crime, Johnson said.

Tracy Stewart, city clerk in Selmer, said city investigators plan to go to Alabama to interview the family.

Matthew Winkler was hired as minister in February 2005, said Wilburn Ash, an elder at the 200-member church in Selmer, a town of about 4,600 in western Tennessee. The job was Winkler's first full-time position after working as a youth minister at another church.

Ash said he never saw any conflict in the family.

"He seemed like he was real happy here, and we were happy with him," Ash said. "He preached the Bible. He didn't make his opinions known on what was popular or what was politically right. He just preached the Bible."

Former Mayor Jimmy Whittington said he worked with the minister collecting donations for hurricane victims last year. "They were a nice family," he said. "They just blended in."

Matthew Winkler's grandfather had a 60-year-career as an evangelist in four Southern states, and his father is a minister and adjunct professor at the Church of Christ-affiliated Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson.

He was serving his first full pastorship in Selmer after working as a youth minister at a church in McMinnville, church members said.

Members of the congregation gathered Thursday inside the one-story brick church. "We're just trying to console each other," Ash said.

Pam Killingsworth, a church member and assistant principal at Selmer Elementary, where the Winkler children went to her school, said: "I can't believe this would happen."

"The kids are just precious, and she was precious," Killingsworth said, her eyes red from crying and her voice cracking at times. "He was the one of the best ministers we've ever had — just super charisma."

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