Police investigators are bewildered as they work through the “extremely unusual” circumstances surrounding the missing-person case of Timothy Cunningham, a researcher who vanished Feb. 12, shortly after hearing why he had been passed over for a promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cunningham, 35, told colleagues he was not feeling well and left work at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, not long after speaking with his supervisor about why he had not been promoted, Atlanta Police Maj. Michael O'Connor told reporters.
Cunningham had spoken to his sister by phone before arriving at work that day, and then called his mother at 9:12 a.m., presumably on his way home, O'Connor said. His mother did not pick up, and Cunningham did not leave a voice mail, according to authorities.
That was the last time the CDC epidemiologist made known contact with anyone, O'Connor said, setting into motion what would become a perplexing investigation.
Police have searched nearby woods with dogs, canvassed hospitals and jails, reviewed cellphone records, looked in cemeteries and even flown over the immediate area with a helicopter looking for signs of life — or worse.
Authorities said they do not suspect foul play but that they have not yet ruled it out, either. Cunningham's family and Atlanta CrimeStoppers have teamed up to offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, just in case.
A GoFundMe campaign, to raise money for a reward to locate Cunningham, had raised nearly $24,000 as of Thursday morning.
“Tim is a very loving, brilliant, and responsible young man,” the GoFundMe page said. “Therefore, his sudden disappearance is highly irregular and very much out of character for him. His friends, family, and colleagues are desperately searching for him. We are launching this fundraising campaign to collect funds that will be used to establish a reward for information that will help locate Tim.”
But the search is now in its third week, and police do not appear to be any closer to finding signs of Cunningham alive or dead. There is “no evidence suggesting anything,” O'Connor said, exasperated.
Police are working through about two dozen tips, he said Tuesday.
About a week before his disappearance, Cunningham was told by his CDC supervisor that he would not get a promotion; an explanation was given to him on Feb. 12 — the Monday he went missing.
O'Connor said police do not know why Cunningham was denied a promotion. The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Cunningham told co-workers he was “upset” about the decision, authorities said.
He left work soon after, saying he was not feeling well. He had also called in sick Feb. 8 and 9, the two previous work days, O'Connor said.
O'Connor, commander of the police department's major crimes division, stressed that investigators have not uncovered any evidence that Cunningham's promotion snub is directly linked to his disappearance. The CDC did not identify any problems with his job performance or workplace issues beyond the promotion denial, O'Connor said.
“We're open to any and all possibilities,” O'Connor said, though he declined to say how investigators were taking Cunningham's mental health into account during the search.
Cunningham's work at the CDC has fueled speculation and conspiracy theories about his disappearance, including one dubious story on a website that said Cunningham disappeared amid warnings that his patients were dying from botched flu vaccines.
But Cunningham works in the chronic disease unit at the CDC, not in the part of the CDC that deals with infectious disease, according to authorities.
“He had no access to classified material,” O'Connor said. “He would not be of the type of person that, if you kidnapped him and held him, he could give you access to some horrific virus that could be a real problem for all the rest of us.”
The incident has taken other bizarre turns.
Cunningham's neighbor, Viviana Tory, reported an odd encounter between her husband and Cunningham the day before he disappeared.
“He told my husband to tell his wife — me — to erase his cellphone number from my cellphone,” she told CBS.
O'Connor confirmed the claim and told reporters he would follow up, but he had few details about its significance. Police spokesman D.T. Hannah told The Post that no further information was available on Wednesday.
“The most unusual factor in this case is that every single belonging that we are aware of was located in the residence,” O'Connor told reporters on Tuesday. “His keys, his cellphone, credit cards, debit cards, wallet, all of his identification, passports. Anything you could think of, we've been able to locate. None of those items are missing.”
Cunningham had no Uber or Lyft transactions that day, and his car and dog, Mr. Bojangles, were found at his home, O'Connor added.
Cunningham's father Terrell told the New York Times that he had concerns about recent interactions with his son, whom he described as focused on a host of professional and personal issues.
“The tone and the numerous exchanges gave us reason to be concerned about Tim,” he said. “And I don’t know if it’s an instinct you have because it’s your child, but it was not a normal conversation, and I was not comfortable.”
Cunningham's parents were notified by police about four bodies found in the search, only to be told later that none of them belonged to their son.
“It takes you to a place that the light is not shining in,” Terrell Cunningham told CNN. The family has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Post.
Tim Cunningham has been a prominent fixture in the Atlanta community. In an Atlanta Business Chronicle 40 Under 40 Awards profile last year, Cunningham said he was “using the skills I have to improve and help the lives of others,” referring to his work at the CDC.
The article said he was continuing on his family's path into the medical field; his father was an Air Force nurse for 30 years, and his mother worked for the state health department as a program manager.
“Dr. Cunningham's colleagues and friends at CDC hope that he is safe,” CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben told The Post. “We want him to return to his loved ones and his work — doing what he does best as a CDC disease detective — protecting people's health.”
This post has been updated.