Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A "Perfect" Life: Mary Winkler Story

"Life Was Good'"

"Life was good there," said Elizabeth Gentle, 32, a native of Haileyville, Ala. "It was a lot of fun."

Gentle transferred to the school in 1994, the same year as Mary Freeman. They went through orientation together, and she remained friendly throughout the year with Mary, whom she recalled as a tiny young woman with long brunette tresses.

Elizabeh Gentle
Elizabeth Gentle

"She was a nice girl," Gentle said. "She was quiet. She was unassuming. She had a pretty smile on her face. She was easy to get along with. I sat next to her in Bible class, and she always had a good attitude. She was willing to socialize, and she could be funny. She just had a sweet spirit about her. I can't say anything bad about her."

Mary Freeman was a member of the campus Evangelism Forum, and she was active in Phi Kappa Alpha, one of six campus social clubs. (Despite Greek names, the clubs are not associated with traditional sororities and fraternities.)

Mary (Winkler) Freeman
Mary (Winkler) Freeman

Gentle also was acquainted with Matthew Winkler, whom she recalled as always wearing "an infectious smile."

"I can't say anything bad about him, either," she said. "He loved life, loved people...They were just good Christian people."

Gentle went on to become a broadcast journalist, and she has worked for the past six years for WAFF-TV in Huntsville, Ala.

She said it did not immediately sink in that the minister killed in Tennessee had been her old Freed-Hardeman classmate.

And when she realized that the alleged perpetrator was the demure former Mary Freeman, "I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"

Gentle covered the story for her station, watching in the Selmer courtroom as her old college friend was led in wearing orange prison scrubs.

She was not the same woman, Gentle said. Her hair was shorn, and her dull expression was not that of the lively coed she had known a decade ago.

"To me she has a different look on her face now than she did then," Gentle said. "It just seems blank."

Mary Freeman and Matthew Winkler were married in 1996 in a backyard ceremony at Mary's family home in Knoxville, with Clark Freeman presiding. They returned to Freed-Hardeman, but financial considerations forced the young couple to leave college in 1997 after Mary got pregnant, according to a former classmate.

The young couple settled in Nashville, where Matthew completed his Bible study degree while working as a youth minister at the Bellevue Church of Christ congregation.

Daughter Patricianamed after Mary's late sisterarrived in October 1997, followed three years later by Mary Alice, known as Allie. Between the two births, the family suffered the loss of Mary's mother to cancer.

Mary became estranged from her father at about the time of that death, although she was in contact with her adopted siblings.

Matthew Winkler next took a job teaching Bible classes at Boyd Christian School, another Church of Christ affiliate, in McMinnville, in middle Tennessee.

"Matt had it all," the principal there, Eva Ferrell, told Woody Baird of the Associated Press. "He was handsome. He was full of personality. He was smart. But most importantly he had a good, Christian soul."

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