Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A "Perfect" Life: Mary Winkler Story

Move to Selmer

The year 2005 brought more changes for the Winklers.

In March, about a year after suffering a miscarriage, Mary gave birth prematurely to the couple's third daughter, Brianna. The newborn was cared for at a hospital in Nashville, 150 miles from home, which led to many car trips back and forth.

Meanwhile, in January 2005 Matthew had taken a job as pulpit preacher at Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, the McNairy County seat.

McNairy County, Tenn.
McNairy County, Tenn.

McNairy, in southwest Tennessee near the Mississippi border, is best known as the home of Buford Pusser, the stick-toting sheriff whose life was portrayed in a series of three films in the 1970s. Pusser, just 26 when he was elected sheriff in 1964, won a reputation as an uncompromising foe of crimes high and low, and he set about cleaning up the vice, gambling and corruption.

Buford Pusser
Buford Pusser

It is not easy to square McNairy's "Walking Tall" reputation for lawlessness with actual police reports.

DVD Cover: Walking Tall (1974 release)
DVD Cover: Walking Tall (1974 release)

Homicide is rare in the county, which has a population of 25,000. In 2003, the county reported a total of just 28 violent crimes, none of them murders.

McNairy County, named for a 19th century Nashville judge, is poor, 93 percent white and relatively uneducated.

About one in six residents live in poverty. Just 9 percent of residents have a four-year college degree, compared with about 18 percent of all Tennessee residents and nearly a quarter of the U.S. population.

But what it lacks in education McNairy makes up for in fervent faith.

Among its more than 100 churches, McNairy County counts 18 affiliates of the Churches of Christ and 30 Southern Baptist congregations. Selmer has about 30 churches.

Some believe the Winklers' faith was a subscript to the spousal homicide.

The Churches of Christ use a literal reading of the Bible for its creed. Nearly all leadership positions are held by men. Women are subservient--said to be decreed in the Apostle Paul's epistle that wives must submit to their husbands.

The old-fashioned church practices full-immersion adult Baptism, and it forbids the use of musical instruments during services.

Churches of Christ regard themselves not as a denomination but as a network of like-minded autonomous congregations, each governed by its own slate of elders. (They are not related to the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination.)

The elders are assisted by deacons, who often have responsibility for practical matters, such as buildings and grounds. The religious leader at a Churches of Christ affiliate typically is called "evangelist" or "pulpit preacher"--the position that Matthew Winkler held.

The faith is deeply rooted in Tennessee, where two influential adherents, Tolbert Fanning and David Lipscomb, lived and preached.

The fundamentalist faith has grown slowly but steadily. It now counts about 3 million adherents in the United States and has affiliate churches around the world.

Tennessee remains a Church of Christ stronghold, with more than 400 congregations.

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