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Missing Family of Slain Minister Found Safe

A popular and charismatic Tennessee minister was found shot to death in his parsonage, and his wife and three young daughters were found safe in Alabama on Thursday after a daylong search.

Church members went looking for 31-year-old Matthew Winkler when he did not show up for an evening service at the Fourth Street Church of Christ. They used a key to enter the parsonage and found him dead in a bedroom late Wednesday, Police Chief Neal Burks said. Winkler's family was gone, along with their minivan.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said there were no signs of forced entry at the parsonage.

The bureau issued an Amber Alert early Thursday for the couple's daughters, Breanna, 1; Mary Alice, 6; and Patricia, 8. The alert said the girls might be with their mother, Mary Winkler.

Thursday night, the woman and the girls were found in Orange Beach, in southern Alabama, when a police office spotted their van parked on the side of the road and pulled over to help.

All were in good physical condition, Johnson said, and no one else was with them.

Johnson said investigators had learned about 1 1/2 hours before the family members were found that they might be in southern Alabama or the Florida Panhandle.

Mary Winkler "hasn't been arrested," Johnson said. "We want to talk to her and find out what she knows" about the slaying of her husband.

The wife has last been seen late Tuesday afternoon picking up the children from school, said Ed Jones, TBI assistant director. Burks said she worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary school.

"We're just so relieved that the kids were found safe and now we can focus on the next task" of solving the crime, Johnson said.

Tracy Stewart, city clerk in Selmer, said city investigators plan to go to Alabama to interview the family.

Matthew Winkler was hired as minister in February 2005, said Wilburn Ash, an elder at the 200-member church in Selmer, a town of about 4,600 in western Tennessee. The job was Winkler's first full-time position after working as a youth minister at another church.

Ash said he never saw any conflict in the family.

"He seemed like he was real happy here, and we were happy with him," Ash said. "He preached the Bible. He didn't make his opinions known on what was popular or what was politically right. He just preached the Bible."

"They were a nice family," added former Mayor Jimmy Whittington, who said he worked with the minister collecting donations for hurricane victims last year. "They just blended in."

Members of the congregation gathered Thursday inside the one-story brick church. "We're just trying to console each other," Ash said.

Pam Killingsworth, a church member and assistant principal at Selmer Elementary, where the Winkler children went to her school, said: "I can't believe this would happen."

"The kids are just precious, and she was precious," Killingsworth said, her eyes red from crying and her voice cracking at times. "He was the one of the best ministers we've ever had — just super charisma."