A suddenly missing scientist. A government agency. An investigation so far without answers.
Cue the conspiracy theories.
When Dr. Timothy Cunningham, 35, a respected epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, vanished after leaving work on the morning of Feb. 12, authorities quickly dove into the case, they say in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
But they soon learned it was hardly a typical disappearance, explained Atlanta police major Michael O’Connor at a Feb. 27 news conference 15 days after Cunningham went missing.
At Cunningham’s two-story residence, investigators found everything in place: his car parked in his garage, with keys, wallet, credit cards, cell phone, passport and ID all left behind, along with Cunningham’s much-loved dog Mr. “Bo” Bojangles.
“Every single belonging we are aware of was located in the residence,” O’Connor said.
“This is an extremely unusual set of circumstances,” he added. “Everything you would need to sustain yourself is at his home. There is no real explanation for that. We don’t have any clues as to why that happened.”
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Dr. Timothy Cunningham
The absence of answers has spawned wild speculation rooted in Cunningham’s scientific work for a federal agency. Might he have stolen a virus and fled? Could he have been nabbed by terrorists to create biological weapons?
“He would not be the type of person that, if you kidnapped him, he could give you access to some horrific virus that could be a problem for the rest of us,” O’Connor said.
Authorities at the federal agency also dismissed the notion that Cunningham might have been taken for such a purpose, telling investigators they “do not believe his employment would be cause for something like that to occur,” O’Connor said.
Cunningham’s workplace role did not involve the CDC’s infectious-disease unit and he had no access to classified materials, say police; he studied health patterns related to race, gender and geography in the CDC’s chronic disease unit.
Dr. Timothy Cunningham (right) with his parents
Cunningham was unmarried but kept in regular contact with his close-knit family. In one of his last traceable actions, police say he made a phone call at 9:12 a.m. the morning of his disappearance to his mother, which she missed; he did not leave a message.
Family members who lived out of state were concerned when they couldn’t reach him later that day and alerted a local Atlanta relative, who checked to find the home with everything still there except for Cunningham.
Questions subsequently were raised about Cunningham’s response to news that he would not be receiving a possible work promotion (an account the CDC disputes), as well as his curious exchange days earlier with neighbor Chris Torry — confirmed by police — directing Torry to delete Cunningham’s contact from his phone.
Canine searches of the wooded area around Cunningham’s home and an aerial search by helicopters have not moved investigators or Cunningham’s family any closer to the truth of his whereabouts.
“We are open to any and all possibilities,” Maj. O’Connor said in February, the last update on the case. “We haven’t been able to rule anything out one way or the other. It’s possible he’s still out there.”
• With reporting by STEVE HELLING