Shocker in Selmer 

A shotgun slaying raises more questions than answers in a small Tennessee town.

SELMER -- Spring has arrived in this tidy little West Tennessee community of some 4,000 souls, and, in anticipation of Easter, signs are posted everywhere on the right-of-ways downtown announcing the weekend's services at First Baptist Church. That's the big white-frame church on West Court Avenue, the one whose enormous steeple overshadows the nearby courthouse and dominates the approach to town on Highway 64, aka Buford Pusser Highway, aka David Crockett Highway.

There are no such signs for the Fourth Street Church of Christ, the modest brick-front church just around the corner, up a little side street from the highway on the crest of a hill. Indeed, for the last couple of weeks, the church's Sunday bulletin, advertising its own order of services, has contained a blank where the minister's name, the Rev. Matthew Winkler, used to be.

The fact is, there's a huge blank in the consciousness of this entire community.

"I referenced earlier what great weather there is here today, how bright and sunshiny, but it was pretty durn cloudy in that courtroom." That statement, made two weeks ago outside the McNairy County Justice Center, came from Leslie Ballin, one of two defense attorneys for Mary Carol Winkler, who was freshly arraigned on a first-degree murder charge for killing her husband, the Rev. Winkler, with a single shotgun blast to his back sometime in the late hours of Tuesday night, March 21st, or in the early hours of Wednesday, March 22nd.

Rev. Winkler's body was discovered by horrified members of the congregation, who used a church-owned key to let themselves in to the minister's parsonage when he inexplicably didn't show up for Wednesday night services.

Ballin's statement had to do with the prosecution's failure, at that point in "discovery" proceedings, to turn over to the defense such evidence as it had regarding Mrs. Winkler's culpability. But the clouds would persist even after District Attorney Elizabeth Rice furnished the prosecution's preliminary proofs, including what arresting police had described as her confession.

click to enlarge Mary Carol Winkler, in custody
  • Mary Carol Winkler, in custody

The prosecution has said that Mrs. Winkler, along with the couple's three children, immediately left their residence in the family van that fateful night as her husband lay dying. She drove all the way to Ocean Beach, Alabama, where she was arrested on Thursday, March 23rd, and extradited after the purported confession.

Ballin and co-counsel Steve Farese continue to contest the issue of a confession, though Ballin was cautious this week in describing what Mrs. Winkler's statement to police actually says. "I'm going to be moving my lips and saying as little as possible between now and June," Ballin said, alluding to the time when the McNairy County grand jury, now out of session, will reconvene to consider the issue of an indictment.

In the meanwhile, there is much that continues, in Ballin's phrase, to be cloudy concerning a case that shocked the nation when it occurred and continues to arouse abundant curiosity both national and worldwide.

Why, indeed, should a crime of this horror and magnitude -- involving a picture-perfect all-American family, a popular, charismatic minister, his well-liked wife, and those three adorable children (who, temporarily in the custody of their late father's parents in nearby Huntington, face an uncertain future) -- have occurred at all?

That word -- "perfect" -- has come in for many repetitions the past few weeks in Selmer. It has been used to describe the family itself, each of the two adults singly, and the relationship, both personal and professional, between minister Matt and wife Mary Carol, now bereft of the family's handsome, colonnaded ranch house (where jolly Christmas wreaths still bedeck the back windows) and residing for the indefinite future in a plain, bare cell at the Justice Center.

A typical recollection came from Doug Letson, Matt Winkler's friend and fellow '93 graduate of Austin High School in nearby Decatur, Alabama. "He don't harm anybody. You can't get more perfect. He didn't lose his temper. Nothing like that," said Letson, who still lives in Decatur and came to Selmer in the wake of the killing with his mother Barbara Letson to help keep the collective vigil for all the Winklers, living and dead, a killing that still occupies so many folks in Selmer.

click to enlarge the Winkler homestead on Mollie Drive
  • the Winkler homestead on Mollie Drive

Like Betty Wilkerson, the church secretary at the Winklers' Fourth Street Church of Christ, who last saw Matt and Mary Carol Winkler together on the Monday before the shooting. "They were having lunch in his office, talking and laughing together. They were the ideal family next door, the perfect family. I gave them chocolate chip muffins to eat for dessert."

A group of church ladies from Fourth Street stood in a group outside the Justice Center on Monday, March 27th, the day that Mary Carol Winkler, shackled and looking pathetically tiny in her orange inmate's jumpsuit, her head bowed all the way, had been arraigned. With her fellow church members nodding, Janet Sparks, a spokesman for the group, said, "We just wanted to put our arms around her and hold her."

The ladies had gone looking for a new Bible to buy for Mrs. Winkler, they said, but settled instead for a novel by Nora Roberts (a romance writer described by a recent reviewer as "queen of the family saga"), which they had presented to her at the jail.

On the day of that initial arraignment, even Ballin, when he and defense colleague Steve Farese first took questions from a swarm of media people, took pains to bestow superlatives, both on his client and on the deceased. "I'm sure he was a fine person," said Ballin.

But as time wore on, the picture became more complicated.

Farese was asked later that first week why he and Ballin had decided to waive a preliminary hearing, during which the prosecution's evidence would have been made public. The defense action had surprised prosecution and media alike. The attorney shrugged. Several reasons, he said. Among them: He and Ballin, presumably with Mary Carol Winkler's concurrence, hadn't wanted "the children to hear gruesome things about their late father."

That was an odd, new note in the general litany of all-inclusive praise. Asked to elaborate later on, Farese shrugged again and said something about graphic descriptions of Rev. Winkler's injuries.

Maybe that was all there was to it, though clearly another motive behind the waiver was to give the defense time to marshal its own case before the prosecution's version of events became settled doctrine in the public mind.

And the very real possibility exists that, between now and June, when the grand jury reconvenes, other flaws may be exposed on what had seemed the perfect surface of the Winklers' family life.

There are Dan and Sharon Everitt, for example, a retired Selmer couple who live with their six foster children on Mollie Street, almost directly across from the Winklers' now-vacant residence. On a recent morning, Mrs. Everitt, sitting on the walkway in front of her house and planting her front garden plot, looked up from her spadework and answered this reporter's questions about her neighbors, the Rev. Winkler in particular. "Well, he was the furthest thing from a saint, I would say. He was what you would call 'aggressive.'" And, as she and her husband, who would join the conversation, went on to describe their relationship with the late minister, the adjectives became stronger, escalating to "rude" and "belligerent."

click to enlarge Defense attorneys Leslie Ballin and Steve Farese
  • Defense attorneys Leslie Ballin and Steve Farese

According to Sharon Everitt, her first encounter with Rev. Winkler -- a big man whose bulk, in all the published photographs of the family, contrasts with the petite frame of his wife -- came a little over a year ago, just after the Winklers had moved into the house across the street, a parsonage owned by the Fourth Street Church of Christ.

"Most of us on this street are Baptists, but we got along just fine with the previous Church of Christ minister," Mrs. Everitt recalls.

Her introduction to the new minister was, to say the least, troubling. Rev. Winkler had crossed the street and addressed one of the Everitts' foster children sternly, then, in a voice she recalls as hard-edged, repeated his message to her. "If you don't keep that dog away from my house, I'll kill him," Sharon Everitt quoted Matt Winkler as saying.

The reference was to Madison, a docile-looking rottweiler that even then was gently nuzzling the visitor and who had evidently, on the day in question, strayed over onto the Winkler property, a household which itself included two dogs. Firefly, an Australian shepherd, still resides there, tethered to a stake near its doghouse, tended by a church member. The other was the Winkler childrens' favorite, a Great Dane named Lucky.

Mrs. Everitt said she tried to explain that Madison must have accidentally been let out of the house when one of her children opened the door and that, in any case, would not do anyone any harm. Rev. Winkler, she said, declined to accept an apology, repeated his threat, and left.

Subsequently, said Dan Everitt, he had gone over to the Winkler residence in a peace-making effort. He, too, tried to apologize. "That's not good enough," said Rev. Winkler, restating his warning: "If I see that dog over here again, I'll shoot him." Everitt said he responded with a statement that in retrospect seems ironic. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he remembered saying. "There's a law against firing a gun in the city limits."

click to enlarge a Christmas card featuring the Winklers
  • a Christmas card featuring the Winklers

Presumably, the gun Rev. Winkler might have used to shoot Madison was the same .12 gauge shotgun he was eventually killed with, the same firearm, too, that was remembered by Roger Weatherford, a Fourth Street church member who two weeks ago was outside the Winkler residence helping load up some of the minister's outdoors possessions (a riding motor and a small car trailer, among them) for transport to a more secure location.

"That was the shotgun he used last year when he and I went turkey-hunting together," Weatherford recalled.

After that first abrasive encounter with Rev. Winkler, neither of the Everitts ever had another conversation with him. Sharon Everitt would often attempt to wave when Winkler's car drove by, but her wave was never returned. Mary Carol Winkler was another story, she said, "friendly as she could be." Mrs. Winkler always returned the wave.

"Look," said Sharon Everitt, "if he was that way out here in public, you can imagine what he had to be like in private!" As for the churchgoers who continue to offer praise for their minister, as several of them made a point of doing at his funeral back in late March, Mrs. Everitt scoffed. "They just knew him with his suit on."

It was with his suit on that Rev. Winkler had delivered his last sermon on earth, on Sunday night, March 19th, one which, remembered Anita Whirley -- one of the Fourth Street church ladies who have been keeping the daily vigil for Mary Carol -- had been devoted to the question of "the family." The young minister expressed his hopes that his own children would comport themselves so as to end up in heaven, and he also repeated one of the core convictions of the fundamentalist faith: that wives should be subject to their husbands' authority. "Oh yes, he covered pretty much all of it," said Whirley.

Whatever the actual state of things between the Winklers -- and clearly, one way or another, they were nothing like what the outside world had presumed before last week -- it is sure to figure in open court if the case ever comes to trial.

click to enlarge the funeral services for Rev. Winkler at Selmer's 4th St. Church of Christ
  • the funeral services for Rev. Winkler at Selmer's 4th St. Church of Christ

Both Mississippian Farese and Memphian Ballin, who have worked together on many a murder trial (winning 11 out of 12, Ballin said this week), have made it clear in their separate and joint pronouncements that Mary Carol Winkler's "state of mind" would loom large in whatever presentations they ended up making on her behalf. That, and the background of a tragedy which, as Farese had made clear last month, had a "beginning and a middle, not just an end."

Meanwhile, all three periods are somehow spoken to in Mary Carol Winkler's voice-mail message, the one that still responds to callers at the Mollie Street parsonage: "You have reached the Winklers, and we're not here right now. Please leave your name, number, and a brief message. Thank you."

The cheery voice is pure springtime -- explaining nothing, asking everything, like the weather itself.

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