Alex Tresniowski
April 10, 2006 12:00 PM

The Bible says to forgive a sinner not seven times but seventy times seven, so Pam Killingsworth showed mercy for a friend in her darkest hour. On March 26 she visited the McNairy County Jail in Selmer, Tenn., and, through a thick sheet of glass, touched hands with Mary Winkler, accused of killing her husband, Matthew, a popular minister sometimes known as Wink. “She said, ‘Thank you so much for coming. I didn’t think anyone would come and see me,'” says Killingsworth, 49, a member of the Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, where the Winklers lived. “She told me, ‘I loved Matthew very much,’ and she kept repeating, over and over, ‘I’m so sorry.'” Winkler, pale and tiny in her orange prison uniform, judged herself harshly: She said she didn’t deserve to be treated well in prison and that the guards “should be kicking me in the stomach.” Yet there was something strange, something unsettling, about her remorse. “I thought I’d see a different Mary, but she still had that serene smile, and she looked peaceful,” says Killingsworth. “She wasn’t distraught. She wasn’t wringing her hands. I’ve racked my brain and I still don’t know why she did this.”

It is a mystery that torments a God-fearing town: Why did Mary Winkler, dutiful preacher’s wife and mother of three lovely young girls, take a gun and shoot her husband in the back in his own house? Police arrested Winkler, 32, on March 23, a day after her husband, 31, was found dead and, they say, she admitted to the shooting. But even as prosecutors charged her with first-degree murder—which requires premeditation—they refused to reveal details of the crime beyond saying they had recovered the murder weapon. Could she have been spurred by infidelity? Some sort of abuse? Her motive remains unclear. “It’s much more than meets the eye,” says her lawyer Steven Farese. “Like many married couples, you have a public life and a private life, and the two don’t always run parallel.”

One area of speculation, though, is that Mary was suffering from postpartum depression. Last year she gave birth to her third daughter, Brianna, who was hospitalized with health problems after the delivery. “There are a lot of indicators that postpartum depression is going on [with Mary],” says Farese, without confirming that that will be his defense. “Where I have run across it is where people have no idea about it, where they think something is wrong with them, and they don’t seek help, and there’s a culmination in some sort of tragedy. I see signs of that.” Farese says Mary’s demeanor in prison is remote and that she has “a flat affect, a dulling of emotion. There’s an analogy that describes it as a ‘thousand-yard stare,’ and it could indicate posttraumatic stress. It could be the culmination of some type of postpartum depression, or deep depression.”

In the wake of the killing, those who knew the Winklers have scoured their memories for clues and red flags they might have missed—anything to help them come to grips with the unfathomable. The day before Matthew’s body was found, Mary seemed nervous and agitated during her first day as a substitute teacher at Selmer Elementary School, where her two oldest daughters (Patricia, 8, and Mary Alice, 6) are enrolled. More than one teacher complained that she was talking on her cell phone too much that morning. Church members were also aware that Mary was having a trying year; in addition to Brianna’s hospitalization, Mary lost her mother, Mary Nell, to cancer. Even so, no one interviewed could say they had noticed any signs of stress. “She was fun to talk to, and she laughed and had fun with life,” says church member John Foote, echoing the sentiments of several other people who knew the Winklers. “What struck everyone about them was how close they were and the love they showed for each other. They seemed to be a loving, devoted family.”

Mary Winkler’s childhood in a middle-class suburb of Knoxville, Tenn., was marred by tragedy: Her younger sister Patricia was handicapped by spinal meningitis and died unexpectedly, at age 8, while her mother was giving her a bath. “She was singing one minute and dead the next,” says Mary’s former neighbor Eugene McCammon. “It was hard for the family to handle that loss.” After the death Mary’s father, Clark, and mother, both teachers, took in and eventually adopted five foster children.

While studying education at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., Mary met Matthew Winkler, the handsome son and grandson of preachers. As far back as high school, “Matt was Mr. Everything,” says Ray Ashby, who knew the Winkler family in their hometown of Decatur, Ala. “He was clean-cut, an outstanding athlete, and all the girls thought he hung the moon.” Matthew and Mary were married in 1996.

In February 2005 Matthew took over the Fourth Street Church of Christ, and the family moved into a single-level ranch house on a hilly, tree-lined street in Selmer. The town of 4,600 quickly embraced their new minister. “He was a great speaker, with lots of charisma,” says Killingsworth. “He kept everybody on their toes.” Jonathan Allen, 20, who was a member of Matthew’s church youth group in another town, says he “was a man who if I had a problem I could talk to any time. He got along with everybody.” At the same time, says Allen, “a lot of his principles were Biblically based. His children treated him with respect: ‘Yes, Sir,’ ‘No, Sir.’ He was the ruler of the house and he took on the role he was supposed to.”

While Matthew was the dynamic face of the congregation, his wife was seen as “very friendly but not as outgoing,” says Carolyn Giesler, the principal of Selmer Elementary. Others spoke of the difficulty of being married to a minister (see box). “You’re introduced as ‘the preacher’s wife,’ not ‘this is Mary,’ and that’s hard,” says Tim Parish, 31, a minister at the McMinnville Central Church of Christ, where Matthew worked before moving to Selmer. “Matthew was the big-smile guy who was always out front, always onstage, and Mary could have been in his shadow a little.”

To most observers, though, her family life could hardly have seemed more ideal. Mary was taking education courses at Freed-Hardeman and had just been approved as a substitute teacher at Selmer Elementary, where both the Winklers were active in fundraisers and school events. “She and Matthew would hold hands and go walking in the park with their Great Dane,” says Killingsworth. “That’s the picture we all had of them.”

That began to change on Wednesday, March 22, when Matthew missed a midweek service. That night four church members went to the Winklers’ home and found Matthew’s body lying faceup in one of the bedrooms. There was no evidence of any struggle, and no sign of Mary and the children. “We thought they were kidnapped,” says Killingsworth. Police issued an Amber Alert, and on March 23 a squad car in Orange Beach, Ala., 390 miles from Selmer, pulled Mary’s minivan over at a traffic light. “The only thing she said was, ‘There’s money in my purse, my kids are hungry, and I need to get them something to eat,'” says Lt. Rusty Roberts. Orange Beach police initially announced that Mary confessed to killing her husband, but her attorney says her statement was not necessarily an admission “that she did anything illegal.” The next day, Matthew’s father and mother visited Mary in the Orange Beach jail. “She was tearful and asked them for forgiveness,” says Tommy Hodge, a family friend. “They told her, ‘We forgive you for what you did.'”

On March 28 church members and relatives gathered in Selmer to say goodbye to Matthew Winkler. All three of his daughters, who are staying with Matthew’s parents, attended the funeral. Patricia, the eldest, lingered at the open casket. “She was putting pictures in it and rubbing her father’s face,” says John Waits, a family friend. “You couldn’t help but be moved.”

Now those who knew and loved the Winklers must wait for the trial. Until then they will likely keep struggling to understand what it was that so tested Mary Winkler’s faith and so haunted her heart. “She had a wonderful husband and three beautiful little girls; what more do you want in life?” says Pam Killingsworth. “The mystery lies with Mary.”

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