Missing CDC epidemiologist was passed up for promotion, police say

The missing epidemiologist from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was informed why he didn't get a pr...

Posted: Feb. 28, 2018 6:33 AM
Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 6:33 AM

The missing epidemiologist from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was informed why he didn't get a promotion shortly before he disappeared more than two weeks ago, police said Tuesday.

Timothy J. Cunningham, 35, was last seen February 12 after leaving work early, saying he didn't feel well. Police have canvassed his neighborhood, nearby woods, a cemetery and other areas, finding no clues on his whereabouts. There have been no bank transactions in the weeks since, said Atlanta Police Maj. Michael O'Connor of the major crimes unit.

"The most unusual factor in this case is that every single belonging that we are aware of was located in the residence," O'Connor said. "His keys, his cell phone, credit cards, debit cards, wallet, all of his identification. Anything you could think of, we've been able to locate. None of those items are missing."

On the morning of the disappearance, he said, Cunningham was informed by his supervisor as to why he wasn't receiving a promotion at work. He had been told a week before that he was being passed over for the job.

Colleagues told police that Cunningham was "obviously disappointed" by the news and that he left work shortly after, saying he didn't feel well, according to O'Connor.

At 9:12 a.m., Cunningham called his mother's cell phone, but she was at the gym and did not answer. Cunningham did not leave a message, O'Connor said.

O'Connor acknowledged that the circumstances of this case were perplexing: "There is a lot I simply cannot explain. This is an extremely unusual set of circumstances.

"We're looking at everything," he said.

Conspiracy theories have abounded about the disappearance, including one internet rumor that Cunningham was a whistle-blower who had warned about the flu shot being responsible for this year's deadly flu season. O'Connor said it was important to note that Cunningham was with the chronic disease unit of the CDC, not with the infectious disease unit.

"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."

Cunningham's father, Terrell, told CNN that the rumor "is a lie."

"It is not factual," he said emphatically.

Cunningham is a highly respected epidemiologist at the CDC, having risen through the ranks to become a team leader in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. He even earned a spot last year in the Atlanta Business Chronicle's 40 Under 40 list, a who's-who of the city's residents.

The disappearance has prompted a high-profile police search and a $10,000 reward for material information in the case.

Four times since their son went missing, Cunningham's parents have been told that a body has been found. Each time, Tia and Terrell Cunningham are sent into heart-wrenching agony, only to learn that it isn't their son.

"It takes you to a place that the light is not shining in," Terrell Cunningham said. "I won't call it a dark place, but they are lows. This is extremely hard."

Cunningham is the middle of their three grown children. "We really need him back to complete our circle," his mother said.

Fliers have begun circulating across Atlanta, showing Cunningham's magnetic smile and urging anyone with information to call 911. Friends say he is smart and caring, a man with a big grin who liked doling out big hugs to match his smile.

Pat Upshaw-Monteith, president and CEO of Leadership Atlanta, said she had recently met with Cunningham because he is taking on one of its highest-level volunteer positions. "Everything seemed to be going very, very well for him -- and then for him to disappear, it just doesn't add up," she said.

Cunningham works in epidemiology, trying to understand health differences across demographics. With more than 16 years of experience in public health, he has co-authored 28 publications on topics ranging from sleep deprivation to pulmonary disease, with a special focus on how health issues affect minorities. He worked on public health emergencies including Superstorm Sandy, the Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus.

The parents said they had a worrisome phone call with their son and exchange of texts the evening of February 11. "We've shared that with the detectives, and we've kept that as a private matter," his father said.

"As a parent, you have indicators when things are just not right with your child, and that was the case," he said.

His mother said she received a text message at 5:21 a.m. on the day he was last seen. "Are you awake?" her son asked.

Her phone was on silent mode. "I wish I had that opportunity to answer that text," she said.

When they arrived at their son's house after he went missing, the parents said, they felt something was wrong because he had left his Tibetan spaniel unattended. The dog, officially named Mister Bojangles Cunningham but known as Bo, had twice accompanied Cunningham to Harvard, where he went for his master's and doctoral degrees.

He loves the dog so much, his parents said, he'd drive the 130 miles to Tuskegee, Alabama, to have the pooch's teeth cleaned. "I tell you all that to really understand the relationship of Tim and Bo," the father said. "To work as hard as he has worked -- and to just now disappear -- it's such a challenge for us to understand."

Both parents said they've been sustained by the outpouring of support from strangers and friends alike -- and that their faith has helped them get through these difficult two weeks. "I often say, 'Lord, you have put me in this position. What would you have me to learn?' " his father said.

"I'm praying for a positive outcome but having difficulty in understanding the lesson."

Timothy J. Cunningham of Atlanta was last seen February 12

Police: "This is an extremely unusual set of circumstances"

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