Nearly two months after his body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River, friends and family of missing CDC worker Dr. Timothy Cunningham say the seasoned epidemiologist was dealing with personal issues before he took his life.
An exclusive report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has revealed new details in what may have driven Cunningham to suicide earlier this year. The more than 600 documents detailing the investigation into his death hinted at the personal struggles the researcher may have been facing at the time — including questions about his sexuality.
Family and friends told police Cunningham was also dealing with a chronic disease and was upset about not landing a promotion at work, according to the newspaper.
The 35-year-old bachelor, who worked as a researcher at Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was reported missing from his home on Feb. 14, after leaving work sick. Cunningham’s parents rushed down from their home in Maryland to check on their son after he stopped returning their calls. They arrived to no sign of Cunningham, but found all his personal belongings, including his car, wallet and beloved dog, Mr. Bojangles.
Seven weeks later, Cunningham’s body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River after two fishermen spotted it floating along the bank. The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office determined his cause of death as a suicide by drowning, but the question of “why” remains a mystery.
“…You have to figure things out for yourself,” Cunningham told his sister, Tiana, over the phone shortly before he went missing. Tiana told police she was bothered by her brother’s last words because she though he sounded “paranoid.”
Rumors swirled that Cunningham’s job at the CDC, where his research focused on health disparities related to race, gender, and socioeconomic status was somehow linked to his disappearance and was further fueled by claims that he knew something about last year’s deadly flu epidemic. There were also reports that Cunningham was denied a promotion, a claim that was later refuted by the CDC.
After his disappearance, the doctor’s close friend, Nell Reed, told police her friend had struggled with his sexuality and suffered a “breakdown” in 2010, according to the AJC report. She said he did not identify as “gay,” but was looking to reconnect with an old classmate from Morehouse College.
“She said that Tim talked to her about his feelings toward men and that he didn’t consider himself gay,” a case file obtained by the newspaper states. ” … She said the (classmate) had been coming to Tim’s house and that Tim began to question whether the person was playing with his feelings.”
Police also interviewed the classmate in question, who told police Cunningham had come on to him in recent months. The man said he blocked Cunningham’s number from his phone just weeks before he was reported missing.
“[The classmate] said he didn’t want to be confrontational because they moved in the same social circles — but it was obvious to him that Mr. Cunningham was making light advances,” officers wrote in the investigative file.
Cunningham’s sister said she was aware her brother had reached out to an old classmate but said he was also interested in two women at work and was looking to get back on the dating scene, the AJC reported.
In addition to struggles with his sexuality, the doctor’s parents said he had a chronic disease that he was taking medication for. It’s unclear what the illness was but Fulton County medical examiner Jan Gorniak said it was unrelated to Cunningham’s death.
Over 600 people attended Cunningham’s memorial service on April 21, where family, friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate his life.
“It wasn’t just a career or job for him,” Capt. Marcella Law with the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion told the audience. “Tim felt that it was his calling to use his gift and change lives.”