Search for motive in Georgia slayings

April 28, 2009 10:50:13 AM PDT
The manhunt for a University of Georgia professor suspected of killing his wife and two other men widened as the campus prepared to remember the victims at a Tuesday night vigil. Law enforcement agencies across the nation and in Europe have been enlisted to search for marketing professor George M. Zinkhan, who has not been seen since the shootings near campus Saturday. Zinkhan has since been fired from the university.

His relatives have been working to help Athens-Clarke County police and the FBI find him, his brother told The Associated Press. But authorities - as well as Zinkhan's friends and family - are still struggling to find a motive.

"If they were having any type of problems, the family knew nothing about it," said Daisy Phelps, an aunt of Zinkhan's wife, Marie Bruce. Phelps said Zinkhan, Bruce and their two children had just celebrated Easter with the family.

"We're all torn up about this. It's awfully hard to talk about it because we just don't understand. We don't know why. We don't know," Phelps said, breaking into tears. "All we know is my niece is dead."

Athens-Clarke County Police Capt. Clarence Holeman said interviews with witnesses have yet to yield a motive. He and other local authorities acknowledged the marketing professor is likely long gone.

"Would you be sticking around if you had three murder warrants?" Holeman asked. "We don't think he's still around. He's probably trying to get as far away from us as he possibly can."

Gunfire erupted midday Saturday at a gathering of a local theater group at the Athens Community Theater. Killed were Bruce, a 47-year-old attorney, and two members of her theater group, Ben Teague, 63, and Tom Tanner, 40. Zinkhan, 57, disappeared after the shootings in a red Jeep Liberty.

Classes resumed Monday on the campus where Zinkhan had taught since the 1990s, with events proceeding as scheduled. Students were out in full force enjoying the warm spring weather, and downtown Athens was busy as usual.

The school is holding its annual vigil Tuesday night to honor students, faculty and staff who have died during the past year. The event was planned months ago, but UGA President Michael Adams said it would hold special significance coming so soon after the shootings.

The school's police patrolled the campus with assault rifles as a precaution, but University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson said there was little reason to believe Zinkhan was still in Athens, a town 70 miles east of Atlanta.

The FBI revealed Zinkhan had a plane ticket for the Netherlands for May 2 and left behind an empty passport wallet. An FBI agent also said Zinkhan might try to change the date and try to leave early. A colleague said Zinkhan recently bought a phone that could be used overseas.

Warren French, a business ethics professor and longtime friend, said Zinkhan has traveled to Amsterdam twice a year - at Christmas and during summer break - for the last two years. He has taught part-time at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) since April 2007.

Police said Zinkhan left his 8- and 10-year-old children in the Jeep during the shootings, then dropped them off with a neighbor before disappearing. Holeman said they were in the custody of Bruce's brother.

"I have these children in my house and that's all I can think about now," said a woman who answered the phone at that brother's house Monday, who identified herself as his wife. She said the family had no further comment.

Holeman said local investigators' hands were tied if Zinkhan has left the county.

"We put a lookout in all 50 states and that's all we can do," he said. "We just put the word out - that's all we can do."


Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Athens contributed to this report.

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