BOGART — The shooting deaths of three members of a theater group during a quiet picnic shattered an idyllic spring day at the sunny University of Georgia campus. Just as shocking was the suspect: A distinguished college professor.
As suddenly as the shootings happened, suspected shooter George M. Zinkhan disappeared.
For the next two weeks, officers armed with assault rifles prowled campus, federal agents warned he had a plane flight to Europe and grieving friends and family wrestled about what may have led to the shootings of Zinkhan’s wife, Marie Bruce, and two others.
All the while, the marketing professor was in the woods in the rural outskirts of Athens, just a few miles from his home in Bogart. On Saturday, police found his body in the woods about a mile from where his Jeep was located a little more than a week earlier.
Zinkhan, by most accounts, was a friendly and affable professor who sometimes stayed awake through the night to read. He handled a six-year stint as head of UGA’s marketing department with ease, and rarely lost his temper, friends say.
Zinkhan’s relatives insisted he and his wife had a stable relationship, and chafed at initial media reports that the couple was divorced. He had celebrated Easter with his wife’s family just days before the shootings, relatives said.
But then the shots rang out midday April 25 during a reunion of the Town & Gown Players on the outskirts of downtown Athens. Just blocks away, a crowd of thousands was beginning to gather for an annual bike race that circles the leafy town’s streets.
Killed were Bruce, a 47-year-old attorney, and two members of her theater group: Ben Teague, 63, and Tom Tanner, 40. The group was preparing to perform “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure” at the theater.
“He shot three people, two gunshots to one man,” said a breathless man who called a 911 dispatcher minutes after the killings. Another witness quickly gave a description: “Tall white male, 50s, goatee beard, I think, wearing blue shorts, like a T-shirt.”
The professor was last seen driving away in a red Jeep after dropping his children off with a neighbor, and school officials sent an alert out to students, faculty and staff telling them to be on the lookout for the car.
But as the days went on with no sign of Zinkhan, authorities said they were beginning to believe he had skipped town. Life on UGA’s campus largely returned to normal: Classes went on, tours crisscrossed town and coffee shops prepared for a typical rush during final exams.
UGA police officers were still patrolling the campus with assault rifles, but authorities said it was just a precaution.
“Would you be sticking around if you had three murder warrants?” asked Athens-Clarke County police Capt. Clarence Holeman.
They had reason to believe he was long gone: No witnesses had spotted his Jeep — although one reported she saw a red Jeep down a dirt road — and the FBI revealed he had a May 2 plane ticket to the Netherlands and that he left behind an empty passport wallet.
His relatives, meanwhile, told The Associated Press they were assisting in the search. “We are doing all we can to prevent any additional violence,” his brother Chris Zinkhan said in an e-mail.
As the manhunt broadened, federal investigators played an increasingly larger role.
U.S. Park Ranger Eric Barron on Wednesday posted a warning on the Web site for the Appalachian Trail that warned Zinkhan was an avid hiker who knew his way around the wilderness. And FBI Special Agent Gregory Jones said his agents revealed a possible motive: Interviews with friends and family indicated Bruce was preparing to file for divorce and the shooting may have stemmed from a domestic dispute.
Then they had a breakthrough. A signal emitted by one of Zinkhan’s cell phones helped lead authorities to the Jeep, which was sitting in a ravine not far from his home, Jones said.
Soon, dozens of officers of all stripes were roaming 1,100 acres of dense woods near the ravine, searching for any sign of the missing professor.
Finally, a week after the Jeep was found, two cadaver dogs — Madison, a 7-year-old Australian shepherd, and Circe, a 5-year-old German shepherd — picked up a scent about 9:50 a.m. Saturday and found Zinkhan mostly buried “beneath the earth” 10 minutes later, said Athens Clarke County Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin.
The search had been scaled back from the initial 200 officers from local, state and federal agencies the day the Jeep was found to teams of eight to 10 searchers a day for the next week. And while search and tracking dogs had been used in the initial search, cadaver dogs from the volunteer civilian organization Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue weren’t brought in until Friday.
Along with Zinkhan’s body were two guns that match those described by people who witnessed the shootings. Officials said there was no indication that anyone else helped Zinkhan bury himself and that the body had started to decompose.
But they remained tightlipped about any other details, saying they’d reveal a cause of death, how long he’d been dead and other information at a news conference Tuesday. For now, the discovery is “another sad chapter to the story,” said Bob Covington, Zinkhan’s neighbor. The professor dropped off his children at Covington’s home after the shootings.
“It’s been two weeks of people being on pins and needles, every time you see a police car,” Covington said. “I think this will ease a lot of tension. People can get back to their lives and move on from this horrible tragedy.”