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Why investigators feel certain CDC researcher killed himself

For most people, it’s hard to imagine how someone could drown themselves on purpose, especially without cement blocks chained to their feet. But it happens at least 500 times a year in the U.S., national suicide statistics show. 

Since 2015, three deaths in Fulton have been ruled suicide by drowning. The latest is Timothy Cunningham, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cunningham, 35, disappeared in February and in April, his body was found in the Chattahoochee River. 

Family members are hugged by clergy during a memorial service for CDC researcher Timothy Cunningham, who was pulled from the Chattahoochee River after being missing for seven weeks. The service was held at Morehouse  College April 21. ((John Amis) Contributed) (John Amis)

Dr. Jan Gorniak, Fulton County’s chief medical examiner, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday that Cunningham, a graduate of Morehouse College and Harvard University and a successful researcher, drowned himself.

But many who have followed the case are skeptical that Cunningham took his own life. Tuesday afternoon, The AJC posted the story on its Facebook page and hundreds of people commented. The majority don’t believe the cause of death is accurate. 

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“I find this VERY hard to believe,” one person wrote. 

“There is no way this can be true,” another posted. 

Gorniak on Wednesday confirmed that medical examiners worked closely with Atlanta police detectives on the investigation, which lasted several weeks. Investigators spoke with family and friends and an autopsy was performed, along with toxicology testing. 

“We do our due diligence,” Gorniak said. “If we didn’t know, we wouldn’t call it that way.”

Suicides are rarely reported by news media unless they take place in public or in cases like Cunningham’s, whose disappearance made national headlines fueled by speculation his job played a role. 

On the last day Cunningham was seen alive, he went to work but didn’t stay long, telling his supervisor he wasn’t feeling well, according to police. The previous week, he had been told he didn’t get a promotion he’d wanted, and his family noticed a different tone in his voice and in text messages. 

Two days later, Cunningham’s parents reported him missing after driving from their Maryland home to his home in northwest Atlanta. Inside were all of Cunningham’s personal belongings, including his cellphone and wallet, and his SUV was parked in the garage. His beloved dog, Mr. Bojangles, was also inside. 

The search continued for Cunningham for nearly seven weeks until his body was found tangled in debris in the Chattahoochee. Cunningham’s body had likely been in the water since he was reported missing, investigators said. 

Medical examiners found no signs of foul play or trauma to his body. Nothing to indicate Cunningham had encountered a physical struggle or that he had been injured by another person. Although there was marijuana in his system, it was not enough to be a factor in his death. 

04/05/2018 -- Atlanta, GA - Fulton County Chief Medical Examiner Jan Gorniak, center, answers questions during a press conference at the Atlanta Police Department headquarters, Thursday, April 5, 2018. The medical examiner's office broke the news to the family of missing CDC researcher Timothy Cunningham, that his body was found in the Chattahoochee River. T(ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ)C.COM (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ)

Investigators, however, don’t have the answers to explain Cunningham’s actions, Gorniak said.

“To the living, we owe respect. To the dead, we owe the truth,” she said. “We give a voice to the voiceless. They have a story to tell, and we’re the ones that give them a voice.”

According to the CDC, more than 44,000 people commit suicide each year in the U.S., with firearms and suffocation as the leading causes. Just over 1 percent of suicides are attributed to drowning, and in 2015, 509 people killed themselves this way, CDC numbers show. 

And while suicides by drowning are uncommon, “Just because you don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Gorniak said.

In a recent interview, Nadine Kaslow, Emory University professor of clinical psychology, said it’s unknown why some people commit suicide outside or in another manner where they could be found by others in a public setting. Deaths like these traumatize not only family and friends, but also those in the community. 

“I don’t think people kill themselves to get attention,” Kaslow said. “I think they’re feeling hopeless, as though there’s not enough reason to live.”

Hundreds attended the memorial service for Cunningham held late last month at Morehouse. In addition to his parents, Cunningham is survived by his younger sister, older brother, three grandparents, and numerous other relatives. He is buried at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.

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