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Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

A "Perfect" Life: Mary Winkler Story

A New Job

On March 21, Mary Winkler worked her very first day as a substitute teacher in Selmer public schools. Her new colleagues noticed that she spent an inordinate amount of time while on break talking on her cell phone.

She rounded up her children after school and went home to the parsonage, where she was met by her husband.

That night, the family watched "Chicken Little" and ate Pizza Hut carryout. The parents tucked the girls into bed at about 8:30.

Winkler Family
Winkler Family

Mary and Matthew then revisited a familiar argument about family finances. The Winklers were broke, like many young families with a modest income and a nursery full of children. But the subject had a new urgency.

Mary Winkler, the family's bookkeeper, had fallen for an Internet scam.

Millions of the scam emails are sent each year, most seeking some form of good faith deposit from the victim in exchange for the promise of a huge payoff. The concept has been around for centuries and is known in the confidence rackets as the advance-fee fraud.

It is known in Africa as the 419 scheme, for the Nigerian law that bans it. Many of the scammers live in Festac Town, Nigeria, outside the capital of Lagos. They call themselves "yahoo-yahoo boys" because many have Yahoo accounts.

Like any financial scam, the success of the 419 scheme depends upon the greed of its victims. Those who bite are drawn into a more elaborate scheme.

The scammers gain the trust of a victim by wiring a small deposit into his bank account. Soon, the victim is drawn into a check-kiting or money-laundering operation that involves deposits and wire transfers of stolen or altered checks from third-party accounts.

Mary Winkler was deeply involved in the scam.

Through wire transfers, she had deposited two fraudulent checksone from Canada, one from Nigeriatotaling $17,500 in family accounts, then shifted some of the funds to a second bank in the shell game known as check kiting.

She had withdrawn $500 cash by the time bank officials caught on.

That is why she spent so much time on the phone on March 21. Two Tennessee banks, Regions Bank in Selmer and First State Bank in Henderson, were demanding to know Mary Winkler's role in the 419 scheme.

She was never completely forthcoming in explaining her involvement.

"I'd gotten a call from the bank, and we were having troubles, mostly my fault. Bad bookkeeping,'' she would later say. Referring to her husband, she added, "He was upset with me about that."

(Attorney Farese claimed Matthew Winkler was involved, as well. "As a family they were being conned," Farese said. "The information we have is that he was aware of the checks...and knew about where they were being deposited.")

The argument escalated from there, by her account.

Matthew Winkler
Matthew Winkler

"Matthew started ranting about problems he was having and personal feelings about the church administration," she said. "I didn't know what set him off. I was just listening to him. He calmed down. We started the movie, and I fell asleep. He woke me up. We went to bed...I remember not sleeping well."

But she said there were other problems that seemed to culminate that night.

"I was upset at him because he had really been on me lately, criticizing me for things, the way I walk, the way I eat, everything. It was just building up to this point. I was just tired of it. I guess I just got to a point and snapped."

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