VANISHED: An April weekend, changed forever
Slain trooper’s friends and colleagues pay their respects, vow to care for his family.
By Carolyn Crist
In Athens, the last Saturday in April is reserved for revelry.
College kids and townies, 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds, all venture downtown for a celebration of beer and bikes at the annual Twilight Criterium. Thousands gather in the baking sun to see friends, cheer on gritty competitors and perhaps witness a crash or two.
But this year they were witness to something new – SWAT members, poised with assault rifles, walking in straight lines amidst the crushing crowds.
Half a mile away – away from the fun and festivities – a man armed with two guns made time stand still.
The last Saturday in April would now mean something else.
* * *
Just before noon, on a cloudless spring day, about 20 people attended a homecoming luncheon of current and past members of the Town & Gown Performers. The group gathered at the Athens Community Theater off Grady Avenue, behind the historic Taylor-Grady House on Prince Avenue, to celebrate before that evening’s showing of “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.”
George Zinkhan III, a University marketing and distribution professor, showed up with his 8-year-old son Jim and 10-year-old daughter Beth. His wife Marie Bruce “hustled them off to get food,” said Leara Rhodes, a journalism professor and performance group member who was at the luncheon.
“I threw things away, Marie was over there helping fix tacos, we were picking up folding chairs,” she said.
Everything was friendly and relaxed. Zinkhan returned, got into an argument and ushered the kids to the car.
Patric Ryan, a senior drama major from Athens, related what happened next.
Tom Tanner was sitting on the bench outside, and Sean Polite, ensemble cast member and Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication staffer, sat beside him, he said.
Zinkhan “walked right up and shot Tom. People thought it was a joke with one of the Sherlock starter pistols,” Ryan said. “Marie was at the door collecting money, and she stood up and he shot her. While everybody else started running, Ben [Teague] confronted George, and did whatever he could and ensure that the rest could get away.”
Zinkhan then shot Ben Teague, a set designer for the group and husband of University English professor Fran Teague.
From what Jeff Chen, a University alumnus and actor at Town & Gown, heard from witnesses, Tanner’s daughter was standing next to him and Tanner’s wife Kris Schultz-Tanner picked her up and “just got her away.”
A resident of Grady Avenue heard the gunshots while in her house at 12:25 p.m.
“I heard eight shots, and then there were five people running out of the theater. A girl with her dog came screaming out,” Mary Beth Gates said.
She saw ambulances arrive, one person attempted to administer CPR and someone else placed a white sheet over a body.
“People were just spilling out of the theater,” she said, and described Schultz-Tanner picking up her daughter and running away.
At 12:25 p.m., police first called units over the scanner to Morton Theatre in reference to a shooting, but 30 seconds later police were told to go to the Grady House.
One minute later, police announced the suspect as “George Zehan” and said he left the theater in a red SUV or Jeep going west on Prince Avenue.
The first police officer left a car wreck nearby and arrived on the scene three minutes after the initial dispatch, noting three bodies were on the ground.
* * *
Five minutes after the original police dispatch, officers discussed if Zinkhan still had his children with him and tried to locate his address. After four more minutes, police verified the correct spelling of his name and sent a unit to 195 South Finley Street to check the house. It wasn’t until another four minutes they found his actual address – 372 Chesterfield Road. Police left for the Huntington Park neighborhood in Bogart and started setting up street blockades by 12:45 p.m.
During the 10 minutes police units were en route to Zinkhan’s house, officers at the Grady House talked to witnesses and verified multiple weapons were used, sent out a description of Zinkhan, checked an SUV parked near Finley Street and told University Police about the suspect.
“This is one of the ugliest scenes I’ve ever seen,” one officer said over the police scanner.
“This is pretty bad,” another said a minute later. Police still couldn’t confirm if the two children were with Zinkhan.
“If he had his kids with him at the crime scene, that must be our last point of contact with him,” one officer said.
On Chesterfield Road, police located his black 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier and verified with neighbors Zinkhan left the neighborhood about 45 minutes before in a “maroonish” Jeep Liberty.
They missed him by mere minutes. Officers posted at Finley Street verified no one lived in the house they were watching.
A little after 1 p.m. police found neighbor Robert Covington, who had custody of the children.
“He indicated that he needed someone to watch his kids for an hour,” the neighbor, Robert Covington, said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press on Saturday. “He said there had been an emergency.”
Covington said when he asked Zinkhan’s daughter about the emergency, “all she would relate to me was there was something about a firecracker.”
By 1:40, police requested a unit to pick up the kids and take them to the Family Protection Center near the Clarke County Jail on Lexington Road. Seven minutes later, an officer arrived, and other officers “gave cover” to quickly move the children to the car.
* * *
University officials sent UGA Alert texts, calls and e-mails around 1:55 p.m. giving students, faculty and staff a description of Zinkhan and urging them to call 911 with his location if spotted.
Police units elsewhere began following red cars and men who looked look like Zinkhan.
Richard Hamm, a photographer for the Athens Banner-Herald and former photo editor for The Red & Black, was near Grady Avenue at 2 p.m. when he drew the attention of three police officers at the scene. Hamm, who has red hair and goatee, was walking through backyards when three officers raced to where he was to make sure he wasn’t the suspect. Running down Grady Avenue, the officers were followed by residents and a camera crew from NewSource 15.
“Don’t worry,” an officer said minutes later to a small grouping of people at the corner of DuBose and Grady as he headed back to his post. “It was nothing dangerous, just a photographer.”
Around the same time, a Chesterfield Road neighbor started updating his Twitter account with details about the police roadblock.
“UGA prof suspected triple homicide around 1 p.m. this afternoon downtown. Police have his home neighborhood covered – where we live …” wrote Scott Foshee, an IT manager for National Investment Bankers Association, who lives three doors down from the Zinkhan residence. Foshee sent out cell phone tweets as police set up a perimeter around the house and spoke with CBS and WSB reporters during the afternoon.
“Crime scene tape just went up – somebody really must be there now,” Foshee wrote at 2:30 p.m. “Police chopper in the air over neighborhood.”
* * *
Around 2:30 p.m., police received a tip Zinkhan was spotted around the State Botanical Garden on Milledge Avenue.
The Garden seemed calm. The weather was nice and people walked quietly around the visitor’s center.
A sign scrawled in green marker directed guests of the Malloy-White wedding planned for later in the day.
A few loops around the parking lot, and the University Police truck stealthily appeared on the scenic road, with officers dressed in SWAT gear inside the flatbed of the truck, rifles cradled in their arms. They nodded in the direction of a reporting team, and headed out of the park.
A call on the radio said there’s action brewing at Brooks Hall, back on North Campus.
When the University Police arrived at the intersection at Milledge Avenue and Lumpkin Street, they pulled the siren and took off.
Just after 2:30 p.m., police blocked off Herty Drive, the street running between Brooks Hall and the Law School. Officers standing in front of the Main Library told students to “go the long way around” and avoid walking in front of Brooks.
One officer with an assault rifle patrolled the area in front of Brooks. Groups of students stopped to watch near the Law School. Students studying in front of the Main Library were not asked to leave the area. In the Founder’s Memorial Garden, which is just below Denmark Hall, a wedding event continued.
Two students inside Brooks Hall were informed of the incident by their friend, Eric Ahlzadeh. Ahlzadeh was not allowed access into the building and alerted his friends about the shooting. The students left Brooks Hall and headed downtown.
Security guards blocked the entrance to the Law School and said no students were being allowed out of the building. One guard said the building was not being evacuated, rather it was under “quarantine.” The guards had a photo of Zinkhan and showed it to students and families passing by – one family pushing a stroller heading from downtown.
Some students passing knew of the incident through text messages and voice mails sent out by the UGA Alert system.
University Police arrived from the Botanical Gardens, jumped out of their white truck into the driveway behind by Denmark Hall and Brooks Hall and began closing in around the top of North Campus. Brooks Hall houses Terry College classes and offices, and they thought it was possible for Zinkhan to be inside.
“We’re just making sure that he’s not here. His office is in the building that’s on the other side of this building,” said Jacob Lank, one of two men outside of Denmark Hall letting police in and out of the building. Lank said police were watching the area for around two hours.
Most of the SWAT team – about 10 members in all – focused around the back area of Denmark and Brooks.
Students coming from the festivities of downtown stopped to take pictures with their cell phones of the SWAT team in action. A SWAT member pulled a shield out of the truck.
After about half an hour later, the team filed back into the flatbed of the white University Police truck and left the area underneath the Law School.
By 3 p.m., a group of Zinkhan’s graduate students gathered near the Law School to watch the events and discuss Zinkhan.
“There was no indication Thursday in class,” said Chris Campbell, one of Zinkhan’s students. “I was just asking him marketing questions and he was answering.”
Zinkhan was Campbell’s assistantship professor in the Master’s program. The two also played softball together.
“We don’t understand,” said another graduate student who declined to reveal her name. “We knew he was having marital problems, but we never thought him capable of violence.”
* * *
Just before 3:30 p.m., a call to police said the suspect may have walked into Christian Life Worship Center on Kathwood Drive. Police units went that way after receiving a second call about a person matching the suspect’s description.
“Be aware of the crowd that’s down there and be low key as best as you can,” one officer said as units approached the corner of Lumpkin and Clayton streets.
“Get it done safely,” another said. The suspect wasn’t a match.
At 3:45, the streets of downtown were bustling with the Twilight crowd. Festival goers sat outside of restaurants and bars – eating, drinking and chatting. Some perused the booths manned by volunteers, displaying bicycle-related gear. Others carried shopping bags, coming from downtown stores. Children ran around with their parents. The atmosphere was dominated by an air of festivity, and there was little indication a murder suspect was on the loose or a SWAT team was patrolling buildings on North Campus.
“I think the only people that really know about it are the students who got the text,” said Katelyn Teneyck, an intern with Swagger, the event coordinator that puts on Twilight.
By 3:46 p.m. the University Police truck pulled over on the Lumpkin Street side of the Bank of America, and the team ran inside the building and up the stairs. Meanwhile, officers told some to stay away, but others used the ATM, unaware of what was going on around and above them.
“Tell everyone to be calm when they go over to that Bank of American ATM downtown,” one officer said over the scanner. “There’s a ton of people there and we don’t want to alarm anyone. We have eight cameras looking in on it, so if anything happens we’ll know.”
Arisa Mitsunaga, a junior from Roswell, withdrew cash from the ATM nook, which is right next to the bank’s door. Inside, the SWAT team searched, with rifles ready.
“I heard there was an off-campus shooting off Prince,” Mitsunaga said after finishing up at the ATM, and said she was bothered that armed police were around downtown and not telling people why they were at the particular building.
“Yeah, it does [bother me]. Especially because I work downtown. I just wish we knew what was going on, especially because of the big event today,” Mitsunaga said.
Crowds adjacent to the bank building formed, and questions and rumors began to spread. Some standing outside the building heard Zinkhan shot three more people during the afternoon.
“We think it’s crazy! Oh my God, let’s go,” said Kelly Banks, an Atlanta resident who was visiting Athens for Twilight. “We just walked by there, I think they need to jump on in and go get him.”
Shortly after they arrived, police left the bank and drove off. Because police stopped using the scanner in the late afternoon to direct activity, it’s uncertain to the media and other listeners where they’re heading next.
University President Michael Adams issued a statement at 4 p.m.:
“The University community is shocked and saddened at this tragic event. Our first thoughts are for safety of the university community and for prompt apprehension of the person responsible. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all those who have been affected.”
By this time, the University Web site has a large cautionary warning with more details about Zinkhan’s description.
* * *
Police activity died down on the scanner, but they began sending units to Chesterfield Road to relieve others who had been there since 12:45 p.m.
The media waited as well. CBS, FOX and several other news affiliates had their satellite vans parked and cameras ready outside the yellow DO NOT CROSS tape, giving on-the-scene briefs that would fit somewhere in the time slot between NFL Draft and NASCAR updates.
Around 4:30 p.m., police kicked down the door to Zinkhan’s home, but “no gunfire happened,” said Robert Muckley, who lives a few houses down from Zinkhan and was watching the action throughout the afternoon.
Around 4:50 p.m., Foshee sent a tweet that said, “I count at least 11 police cars and 2 news vans at the scene.” By 5 p.m., “SWAT has been in house a long time now,” he wrote.
The SWAT team exited the house at 5:20 p.m.
“It appears the house is clear. This means he could still be in the neighborhood or somewhere else in town,” Foshee wrote.
“It’s been very quiet until the last hour and a half – [the police] seem to suspect that he’s in there, and they stormed in,” said Don Laborde, who lives down the street from the Zinkhans. “It’s been pretty nonchalant until the last hour, I just hope the children are safe.”
Several neighbors mentioned their fear Zinkhan had his children inside the home, but at that point in the afternoon, the children were in police custody.
The ensuing standoff seemed out of place in this leafy, older subdivision. As some neighbors watched, some were undeterred to go about their day – children played in the grass and down the street.
“They [the police] haven’t come by to tell us to lock our doors and go inside,” said Laborde, who has lived in Huntington Park for 23 years, a neighborhood that attracts University professors and their families. Laborde said he did not know Zinkhan’s family very well, but did say he often saw Zinkhan’s daughter and son play outside.
“We’re all just kind of amazed at what’s going on,” Laborde went on, describing the neighborhood as crime-free. “Occasionally, ACC Police come and do a patrol around the block, but we’ve never felt like this neighborhood has been a big threat. You always read about this kind of thing, and say, ‘Wow, I’m glad this doesn’t happen here,’ and now it’s happening in Athens.”
By 6:20 p.m the police began to pack up their cars and equipment outside the house. Various reporters and photographers packed up their microphones and cameras. There are no obvious answers of what the police found in the house, or where Zinkhan could be. A few reporters linger anxiously outside the tape, waiting for any police statement about the last few hours.
Officers switched out shifts as two squad cars barricaded each side of the yellow tape, which flapped in the wind, but said nothing.
Police remained watch over the neighborhood, just in case the suspect decided to come back.
“Police say they will be here all night. He said everybody is OK in their yards, but we’re not so sure,” Foshee wrote. “It’s interesting how many neighbors we never see get together in times of crisis like this. We’re all having a big pizza dinner and talking.”
Neighbors went back inside their homes. A lawn mower began to buzz.
Zinkhan would not be coming back for the night.
* * *
At 6:30, Major Mike Shockley of the Athens-Clarke County police department confirmed other victims were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. He said the investigation was continuing.
“We’re working on finishing up the crime scene and continuing to look for him,” Shockley said.
Police said little about the incident for the rest of the night. Media outlets expanded their stories. Most news Web sites rounded out and completed larger stories by 10 p.m., and the search has become nationwide, as reported by CNN, Fox News, the New York Times, CBS, WSB, the Associated Press and the Athens outlets – The Red & Black and Athens Banner-Herald.
On Sunday morning, the only update given by police was that Zinkhan had not used his cell phone, ATM card or passport.
A memorial was held at the theater, and many students and faculty expressed condolences on Facebook and Twitter.
Police remained quiet.
President Adams sent a message at 5:15 Sunday evening – everything will resume on campus as usual.
“We have had a tragedy this weekend that has impacted Athens and the entire University of Georgia community. We are saddened by the shooting that took place Saturday, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of all those who have been affected. As we grieve, we are determined to move forward,” he wrote.
Moving forward, yes, but forever looking back on one fateful day in April.