Two years later, lives rebuilding after Zinkhan shootings

The mood was somber at last year's annual gathering outside a small theater in Athens. This year will be different.

The Town & Gown Players will again host its homecoming picnic, two years after the event came to an abrupt halt during a horrific crime.

University of Georgia business professor George Martin Zinkhan III killed three people, including his wife, outside the theater on April 25, 2009. Two years later, those in the path of his horrifying crimes still struggle to make sense of it all. The rebuilding of lives, families and friendships continues.

"The picnic will forever be a time when we remember what happened," Terrell Austin, president of the Town & Gown Players, told the AJC. "There will be tears and there will definitely be laughter."

Looking back: What happened

It was a Saturday afternoon, perfect for spending time with friends, being outdoors and having fun. With the Twilight Criterium pro cycling event just hours away, even more people filled the college town than a normal spring weekend.

It was also the perfect setting for the annual picnic for the close-knit theater group. But in an instant, it became the scene of a triple murder.

Witnesses said Zinkhan was at the picnic, left after an argument with his wife and then returned, this time with a pair of handguns. He left his two children, then ages 8 and 10, in his red Jeep Liberty.

When shots were fired, some witnesses told police they thought perhaps actors in the group were performing, former mayor Doc Eldridge told the AJC. But the gunfire was very real.

His first victim was 40-year-old Tom Tanner.  Next was Zinkhan's wife, Marie Bruce, 47. Friends said 67-year-old Ben Teague was trying to help his friends when Zinkhan turned the gun on him, too.

Zinkhan then left the theater, dropped his children off at a neighbor's home and was gone.

After days of speculation and a two-week search, the married father of two was found by cadaver dogs in a grave he dug for himself, just a few miles from his family's home in Bogart.

"I think he clearly didn't want to be found," Major Mark Sizemore with Athens-Clarke County police told the AJC. "The way he was covered and concealed, you couldn't see him."

Under more than a foot of dirt and brush, Zinkhan was dead of a single, self-inflicted shot to the head. Autopsy results showed Zinkhan, who had been dead for between five and 15 days, could have killed himself the same day he killed his wife and two other members of the Town & Gown Players.

But why?

Zinkhan and Bruce were rumored to have been marital problems. But no one could have predicted this.

A respected professor, Zinkhan had taught at the University of Houston before joining the UGA staff in 1994. His research was published in dozens of academic journals and he was the recipient of numerous awards.

Zinkhan had adult children from a previous marriage when he met Bruce, an Augusta native. Bruce, who finished law school in 1998, practiced family law. Friends admired her for determination and boisterous spirit, and she was always willing to help.

Hours after the shootings at the theater, neighbors watched as a SWAT team busted down the front door of the Zinkhan home on Chesterfield Road. These days, few people stop by the home, other than some neighbors who take turns mowing the grass, said Dana Adams, whose family lives across the street from the Zinkhan home. There is still furniture in the home, which remains unsold due to ongoing legal battles.

Lives changed forever: The victims and the community

After the deaths of both parents, the Zinkhan children were turned over to their mother's relatives. But custody is being challenged by Zinkhan's family.

Frederick Christian Zinkhan was named the executor of his brother's and sister-in-law's will, attorney Brian Deutsch told the AJC. But the children, now ages 10 and 12, have been with Bruce's brother and sister-in-law since their parents' deaths. At the end of the school year, the children may have to move, unless there is a challenge to a recent ruling.

"Chris is the legal guardian of these children," Deutsch said.

The attorney for the Bruce family, Lane Fitzpatrick, declined to discuss the case with the AJC.

Tanner's family also has an ongoing lawsuit vs. the estate, according to Clarke County Superior Court docket.

Legal battles and grief aside, members of the theater company are closer now than ever, the group's president said. The three who died weren't simply members of the theater, Austin explained. They were three of the key players.

Teague served as the group's historian, and he and Tanner were responsible for building sets. Bruce was involved with various aspects of productions too, and all three had acted in plays.

"The loss of three such key people really challenged other people to step up to the plate," Austin said. "When we lost them, people said, ‘all right, we have to pick up where they left off.' "

Moving on: The rebuilding continues

When the friends gather for their picnic April 30, a memorial garden next to the theater will be dedicated to three members killed.

Named "Arcadia" after the last play Bruce, Tanner and Teague all starred in together, the garden features three red maple cultivars and other bushes, theater company president Austin said. A Summer Red for Teague, an October Glory for Tanner and an Autumn Blaze for Bruce.

"The garden was designed so that everything would bloom in April," said Austin, who has been a part of the theater group since 1985.

The theater itself has a new look on the inside, too. All 126 seats have just been replaced, and each seat now has a memory plaque to honor theater patrons, Austin said. There are seats to honor Bruce, Tanner and Teague.

"There's not a day that goes by that they don't come up. They are very much alive in our memories," Austin said. "We talk about them every day."

For the survivors, living in the present means never forgetting the past, but simply moving on.

"We lost so much two years ago on this day," Austin said. "But we are determined to hold on to what we have, and that's each other and the memory of our friends, and this thriving little theater."

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