Surprise Visit

updated 07/10/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2006 01:00AM

Visitors' hour was nearly over at McNairy County Jail on June 25 when Mary Winkler looked up to see a stunning sight. There, on the other side of the glass divider, were her three daughters: Patricia, 8, Mary Alice, 6, and Brianna, 1. Winkler, 32, had not seen them in more than three months, since the day after she killed their father, Matthew, 31. "No one told her they were coming," Winkler's lawyer Steven Farese Sr. told PEOPLE exclusively. "Matthew's parents just showed up with them 10 minutes before her visitation was to end."

Winkler, charged with shooting her minister husband in their Selmer, Tenn., home, had asked to see her children, but Dan and Diane Winkler, who have temporary custody of the girls, had only let them write her letters. Then came the no-contact visit, which prison officials allowed to run an extra 30 minutes. "It was emotional," says Farese. "Mary tried to hold it together. She told the kids it was okay to cry, and they did. Patricia cried the most." Mary asked the Winklers to hold tiny Brianna up to the window, "hoping she would remember who she was," says Farese. "Mary said the baby stared at her for a while and let out a big smile."

The subject of Matthew's murder was never brought up, but one of the children told Mary that her hands looked good. "They'd always noticed at home that Mary had marks on her hands," says Farese. Asked to explain, Farese would only say, "You can read whatever you want into [the marks]." Mary, who pleaded not guilty (she has a bond hearing June 30), should be able to tell her story this fall, when her trial is expected to begin. But for now, says Farese, she was heartened to see her daughters again. "Allie talked about letting her hair grow, and Patricia talked about her new school, and they all talked about seeing each other again," says Farese. "It was bittersweet."

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