It seemed as though Timothy Cunningham had vanished.
The 35-year-old reported to work Feb. 12 at Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but left a short time later, telling colleagues he didn’t feel well. It was the last time Cunningham was seen alive.
For more than seven weeks, Cunningham’s family and friends held out hope that he would be found safe. But instead, the search came to a heartbreaking end late Tuesday when a decomposed body was pulled from the muddy waters of the Chattahoochee River, about four miles from Cunningham’s northwest Atlanta home.
It was Cunningham, still wearing his favorite pair of running shoes, police said.
Through dental records, investigators identified the body as Cunningham, according to Dr. Jan Gorniak with the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office. Gorniak said the likely cause of death is drowning, though toxicology results are pending. There were no signs of trauma or underlying medical conditions, Gorniak said.
“Based on the condition of the body, all we can say is the condition is consistent with him being missing since February 12,” she said.
Investigators had previously searched the Chattahoochee, includingthe area where Cunningham was found, Atlanta fire Sgt. Cortez Stafford said.
“During that search, we did not find any indication or signs of the body being in the river at the time,” Stafford said.
Late Tuesday, two fishermen saw a body in the river and called 911.
In the days after Cunningham’s disappearance, Atlanta police admittedly had few clues.
“The most unusual factor in this case is that every single belonging that we are aware of was located in the residence,” Major Michael O’Connor said at a Feb. 27 news conference. “So his keys, his cellphone, debit card, credit cards, wallet, all of his identification, passports. Anything you can think of, we’ve been able to locate. None of those items are missing.”
Police said Cunningham, a Morehouse College and Harvard University graduate, worked as epidemiologist and had been upset in the days before his disappearance because he had been passed over for a promotion. Detectives interviewed several CDC employees, O’Connor said. But the CDC later said information released by police was incorrect.
The CDC said initial reports that Cunningham had failed to get a promotion shortly before his disappearance were incorrect, and that he had received a promotion in July. Atlanta police reiterated that details about Cunningham’s job were provided by the CDC.
His disappearance made national headlines because of his job with the CDC. But in recent weeks, there was little news to report. Atlanta police officers conducted numerous searches, but found no signs of Cunningham.
On Tuesday Atlanta police officers and firefighters were called to the area near Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. There was no running or walking trail near the water in the area, Stafford said.
“It was very difficult to access the location where Mr. Cunningham was found,” Stafford said. “It was in a very remote area.”
In order to access the body, a swift water rescue team deployed a boat 200 yards upstream, Stafford said.
“We couldn’t just go in right there along the shore,” he said.
Firefighters were able to recover the body late Tuesday, and an autopsy was conducted Wednesday.
The medical examiner’s office notified Cunningham’s family. The family could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Thursday afternoon, the CDC called Cunningham’s contributions invaluable and expressed condolences to his family and friends.
“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 in an emailed statement. “We extend our condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time.”
Investigators have not determined where Cunningham may have gotten into the river or what led to his drowning. Police believe Cunningham did know how to swim. O’Connor said investigators may never have those answers, but he reiterated that there were no indications of foul play.
“The river’s not that far from his home, and we do know he was a jogger, and he was wearing his favorite jogging shoes when he was found,” O’Connor said.
Cunningham was also a collector of rare rocks, police said. Three stones were found in his pocket.
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