Many unanswered questions in death of CDC researcher
Posted April 7, 2018 1:25 p.m. EDT
ATLANTA -- The whereabouts of a missing Atlanta researcher are no longer a mystery. The body of Timothy Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was pulled this week from the Chattahoochee River.
But there are still many unanswered questions about Cunningham's apparent drowning death. Was it accidental or intentional? And why?
Atlanta police said Thursday that there are no indicators of foul play in Cunningham's disappearance and death. Though investigators don't have all the answers, many that have followed the case have used social media to voice a variety of theories.
Since news of the drowning became public, hundreds have commented on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Facebook page, stating they don't believe investigators. Among the responses:
"Someone killed that man."
"They better not say that this educated man took his own life either. We ain't buying that lie."
"This man Knew Too Much and was taken out as not to tell the world what's really going on at the CDC!"
"Something ain't right, clear as day he was set up."
The facts in the case don't match those hunches, according to police.
"We've talked to a lot of people and looked at a lot of different factors, and through all of that, we have nothing that indicates foul play," Major Michael O'Connor said.
There were no signs of any struggle inside Cunningham's home, where everything was intact. And Cunningham's body showed no signs of any trauma, like bruises or other wounds, according to the medical examiner. He was found wearing his favorite running shoes and had three small rocks, the type he liked to collect, in his pocket, police said. So how did Cunningham, who knew how to swim, end up dead in the river?
"We may never be able to tell you how he got into the river," O'Connor said.
Did he know too much?
Cunningham's research involved understanding health differences related to race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and geography, the CDC said. He previously deployed for numerous public health emergency responses, including Superstorm Sandy, Ebola, and Zika. But Cunningham did not have access to classified information at the CDC, according to police.
"We're very aware of the conspiracy theories," O'Connor said at a Feb. 27 news conference. By then, Cunningham's disappearance had become a national story and speculation was spreading as to whether his job at the CDC may have played a role.
Investigators interviewed several of Cunningham's colleagues and learned that he had recently been passed over for a promotion, according to police. He was upset he hadn't gotten the job, and he'd let his family and friends know in the days before his disappearance, O'Connor said.
Cunningham had taken two days off work because he was ill, but returned on Monday, Feb. 12. It was then, according to police, Cunningham met with a supervisor and was told why he hadn't gotten the promotion.
Around 9 a.m., that morning, surveillance cameras captured Cunningham leaving work, but police said there are no cameras in the CDC parking deck. He called his mother at 9:12 a.m., but she missed the call and he didn't answer when she called back.
At Cunningham's home, his family found all of his personal items -- wallet, credit cards, keys, cellphone -- and his beloved dog, Mr. Bojangles, but no signs of him. A neighbor gave police an eerie tip, too. Before he disappeared, Cunningham asked the neighbor's wife to remove his number from her phone, police said.
In an interview with the AJC, Tia-Juana Cunningham said it was unusual for her son to not be in touch with his family, and to have left his dog alone. The family released a statement Thursday thanking those involved in the investigation and search, but asking for privacy.
"We sincerely thank all of you for the support and kindness you have shown our family during this difficult time," the statement read. "We are processing this incomprehensible loss and request time and space to grieve."
Did the CDC change its story?
In a strange twist in the case, the CDC blasted media reports and police indirectly on March 12, stating that Cunningham was not passed over for a promotion.
A statement emailed to the media from the CDC's acting director Anne Schuchat read in part: "There has been news coverage that Commander Cunningham recently did not receive a promotion. As many of his colleagues in the USPHS have pointed out, this information is incorrect. In fact, he received an early promotion/exceptional proficiency promotion to Commander effective July 1, 2017, in recognition of his exemplary performance in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS)."
Atlanta police officials stood by their information, which was gathered from the CDC. The CDC declined to elaborate on whether there was a second promotion Cunningham was seeking. In a statement late Thursday, the CDC called Cunningham a valuable team member.
"Tim's impact will be felt not only through his significant contributions to CDC's mission, but also through his influence on the lives of his colleagues and friends," the CDC said. "We extend our condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time."
Cunningham's case is not yet closed, Atlanta police said. Detectives will review the case file, making sure nothing has been overlooked, O'Connor said. Toxicology testing on his body is also being completed.
Anyone with information on the case is asked to contact police. The family and CrimeStoppers Atlanta have offered a $15,000 reward in the case. The fishermen who spotted Cunningham's body in the river are not eligible for that reward.
Alexis Stevens writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: astevens(at)ajc.com.
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