EXCLUSIVE: CDC researcher had personal struggles before suicide

To those who knew him best, Timothy Cunningham was a well-educated, motivated career man who felt it was his purpose to change lives. But in his personal life, Cunningham struggled with his sexuality, was upset he hadn’t landed a promotion, and lived with a chronic disease, family and friends told Atlanta police.

It’s now no longer a mystery how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist died. Cunningham committed suicide by drowning himself, according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday obtained more than 600 pages of documents that show how the extensive investigation unfolded. Though there are hints at the personal struggles Cunningham was facing, there are no definitive answers to the biggest question: Why?

Cunningham, 35, was reported missing from his northwest Atlanta home in February. Just over seven weeks later, his body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River. An autopsy determined Cunningham drowned, but the case remained open for six weeks while investigators worked to determine if the drowning was accidental.

They reviewed evidence and transcriptions of interviews with family, friends and coworkers from an extensive investigation that began on Feb. 14, the day his parents reported him missing.

“You have to figure things out for yourself.” Those were among the last words Cunningham told his sister, Tiana, over the phone, she told police. The siblings were close and spoke frequently, but in their last conversation, Tiana thought her older brother sounded paranoid.

When Cunningham stopped responding to his family’s calls, it alarmed his parents, who drove from Maryland to his Atlanta home. All of their son’s personal items, including his SUV and beloved dog, Mr. Bojangles, had been left behind. His parents found some of his clothes in trash bins outside the garage, they told police. But there was no sign of Cunningham.

So how did Cunningham, who knew how to swim, end up dead in the Chattahoochee River?

“We may never be able to tell you how he got into the river,” said Atlanta Police Maj. Michael O’Connor on April 5, two days after Cunningham’s body was found.

Did his job play a role?

The story quickly made national headlines due to his job at the CDC. Social media responded with wild speculation about connections between the work he did for the CDC and his disappearance.

"We're very aware of the conspiracy theories," O'Connor said at a Feb. 27 news conference. Police said they had very few leads in the case. But tipsters from around the country believed they'd seen Cunningham and contacted police with that information. A woman in Hawaii said she believed Cunningham was her new neighbor, according to the police file.

Family members are hugged by clergy during Saturday’s memorial service for CDC researcher Timothy Cunningham, who was pulled from the Chattahoochee River several weeks after he was reported missing. (John Amis / Contributed)

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Cunningham’s research focused on health disparities related to race, socioeconomic status, gender and geography, according to his colleagues. His work was published in numerous journals. After teaching undergraduate classes at Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, Cunningham joined the CDC in 2010. At the time of his death, he was a team leader in the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch of the CDC’s Division of Population Health.

On Feb. 7, Cunningham resigned from a special CDC team tasked with deploying to areas in need by sending an email to Commander Richard Dunville.

“I thought he sounded exasperated,” Dunville told police. “In fact I would have encouraged him to stay on through June, when he would have received a service award, but he sounded too ready to leave.”

The next day, Cunningham was told he didn't get a promotion he'd wanted, his supervisor told police. Janet Croft told investigators that since Cunningham didn't get the job he'd hoped for, he was considering finding a job in Washington, D.C., in order to be closer to his parents. He wasn't at work Feb. 9, a Friday.

“Hi Janet, I’m still not feeling 100%, I won’t be in the office today,” he wrote in an email.

His personal struggles

After delivering a baby Feb. 9, Nell Reed sent her best friend a picture of her newborn, and he congratulated her in a text message. Cunningham was to be her daughter’s godfather, but days after giving birth, Reed learned Cunningham was missing.

Reed, who lives in Texas, told police Cunningham had struggled with his sexual identity, and in 2010, had had a “breakdown.”

“She said that Tim talked to her about his feelings toward men and that he didn’t consider himself gay,” the case file states. Though he didn’t identify himself as gay, Cunningham told Reed about reconnecting with a former Morehouse classmate.

“She said the person had been coming to Tim’s house and that Tim began to question whether the person was playing with his feelings,” police said.

In an interview with investigators, the classmate said Cunningham had come on to him in recent months. About two weeks before Cunningham’s disappearance, the man blocked his number on his cell phone.

“He said he didn’t want to be confrontational because they moved in the same social circles but it was obvious to him that Mr. Cunningham was making light advances,” police wrote in the investigative file.

On Feb. 9, Cunningham was alone at El Bar in Atlanta when he saw his former classmate on a date with a woman. The two men shook hands. The following morning, Cunningham asked the man to go out for breakfast, but he declined.

Cunningham’s sister told police she knew her brother had re-connected with a classmate, but she told police he was interested in two women at work. After a break, Cunningham was trying to begin dating again, his sister said.

While police interviewed those closest to Cunningham, the search continued to find him. Local parks and cemeteries were searched and a helicopter also scanned the area. There was no sign of Cunningham until the first week of April.

The search comes to an end

On April 3, two fishermen spotted a body tangled in debris along the Chattahoochee River and alerted police. An autopsy determined it was Cunningham.

Cunningham’s body, while decomposed, showed no signs of trauma, like bruises or other wounds, according to the medical examiner. He was found about four miles from his home, wearing running shoes, police said. He also had three small rocks, the type he liked to collect, in his pocket.

“Based on the condition of the body, all we can say is the condition is consistent with him being missing since February 12,” Dr. Jan Gorniak, Fulton’s medical examiner, said at a press conference.

Cunningham’s parents told investigators that he had a chronic disease and took medication to treat it, but no information was released on when he was diagnosed. Gorniak told The AJC the illness did not play a role in his death.

The death was later ruled a suicide by drowning after toxicology reports were completed, Gorniak said. Marijuana and nicotine were found in Cunningham’s body, she said.

On April 21, approximately 600 people attended a memorial service for Cunningham held at Morehouse College, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 2004. Cunningham also was a Harvard University graduate, earning a master’s of science in 2006 and a doctorate of science in 2010.

Despite the lingering questions surrounding his death, Cunningham’s family and friends focused on how he lived his life, his drive to succeed and his passion for serving others.

“It wasn’t just a career or job for him,” Capt. Marcella Law with the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion told the crowd. “Tim felt that it was his calling to use his gift and change lives.”

His friend Nell Reed also spoke at the memorial, and described a time she and Cunningham had attended a church service together. The pastor asked congregants to turn to the person beside them and repeat the words, “You are a miracle” several times. It became a catch-phrase between the friends, Reed said.

“The body is just a body,” Reed said. “Tim’s spirit is what I hold.”

Those who knew him best, remembered Timothy Cunningham as an accomplished young man who had so much to give.