The Pastor’s Wife: Chapter 1
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. Their three daughters should have been with the other children. But they were not. And Matthew had not called any one of the elders, 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 Ann in the hospital in Memphis and got caught up in bad traffic,” Elder Ash 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 decided not to answer it since they were running late—they would have reached the church by now.
They 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.
Drew, James Turner, Randy Smith, Kevin Redman 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 phone 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 the delegation of five headed back out the church doors hoping one of them would open the house where maybe—hopefully–they’d find answers.
They hung a left at Court Street and continued to the fork in the road, bearing left on to Poplar Street. Just past the sprawling fifties-era Selmer Elementary School, they turn left on lovely, serene Mollie Drive. Headlights brushed the branches of the winter-stark tall 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 house.
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 tee-shirt and old shorts he wore to bed, 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 a grimace and shook his head. Matthew Winkler, a mere thirty-one 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 searching, 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 ?