When Bob Covington’s neighbor, the taciturn and physically imposing university professor George Zinkhan, stopped by Saturday, April 25, a little after noon, he was in need of an important favor. “He asked me if I could keep his kids for about an hour and said there was some type of emergency,” Covington told CNN.
Zinkhan raced off before Covington could find out what the emergency was, so he asked Zinkhan’s 8-year-old daughter. As Covington told the AP, “All she would relate to me was there was something about a firecracker.”
Soon, authorities would disclose what they allege is the truth behind Zinkhan’s “emergency,” shocking the picturesque college town of Athens, Ga., and those who knew Zinkhan. Authorities said that before going to Covington’s house, Zinkhan, armed with two handguns, murdered his wife and two others, then fled, triggering an international manhunt. On Friday, authorities found his damaged Jeep – but there’s still no sign of the quiet, nationally renowned University of Georgia marketing professor.
“Like most of my colleagues, I am absolutely flabbergasted by this,” University of Wyoming professor Eric Arnould, who wrote several textbooks with Zinkhan, tells PEOPLE. “Two pistols and the Wild West thing? Extremely bizarre. There was no inkling whatsoever that he was capable of this kind of violence. If you want to paint him like that, go ahead, but it would be totally inaccurate.”
Police say it all began at around 11:30 a.m. last Saturday, when Zinkhan, 57, had a heated argument with his wife Marie Bruce, 47, a prominent Athens divorce attorney, at a reunion picnic she was having with the Town and Gown Players, a community theater group for which Bruce was board president and sometimes actor.
Zinkhan went back to his red Jeep Liberty where his two children were waiting, then allegedly returned to the theater where he shot and killed Bruce and two of her friends and fellow members of the troupe, Ben Teague, 63, and Tom Tanner, 40, with a pair of handguns.
The shocking act of violence alleged to have been committed by the endowed professor sometimes described as aloof and gruff by his students (curiously, he cancelled classes the week before the shooting), has the community grasping for answers.
Possible Love Triangle
CBS News has reported there may have been a love triangle, and that Bruce was having an affair with Tanner, a set designer for the company who was starring as Watson in that weekend’s production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure. Several media outlets have reported that Teague, a father figure for the group whose long grey beard made him perfect for Prospero in their production of The Tempest two years ago, may have been killed trying to help.
“I have no idea why he did it,” Athens-Clarke County Police Capt. Clarence Holeman tells PEOPLE. “People got their own theories but I would rather not speculate on what it is that started this. To be honest, I am old school: It doesn’t matter what the target was or why. Three people are dead.”
Much more pressing to law enforcement is where Zinkhan is now. Following a signal from his cell phone, authorities Friday morning found his wrecked Jeep in a ravine 10 miles outside of Athens and are currently searching a 200 acre area around the ravine.
Zinkhan is an avid hiker who wrote poetry about his frequent treks on the Appalachian trail. Before the shootings, he bought a plane ticket for Amsterdam, where he has taught in the summers and reportedly owns a house. PEOPLE has learned that Zinkhan has an ex-wife and three children in Texas, and police have also been looking there.
“He could be anywhere,” says Capt. Holeman. “We are working non-stop on this. We haven’t gotten much sleep.”