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CDC Doctor Who Vanished for Months Before Being Found in a River Killed Himself by Drowning

Steve Helling

A CDC doctor who vanished in February drowned himself and was pulled from an Atlanta river about two months after going missing, authorities now believe.

Dr. Timothy Cunningham, a Harvard-educated epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was last seen alive leaving work Feb. 12, after complaining that he felt ill.

Two months later — after much fruitless searching and mystery, some of which spawned wild and since-debunked conspiracy theories — his body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River on April 3.

On Tuesday, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office classified his death as “suicide by drowning,” though it remains unclear how exactly he first entered the water.

The chief medical examiner, Dr. Jan Gorniak, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that toxicology testing found marijuana in Cunningham’s system, but there were no other significant findings.

His body showed no other signs of trauma, according to authorities.

According to the autopsy report, Cunningham’s parents told police that he did have frequent mood swings but that he had never been officially diagnosed with depression or any other mental illness.

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Dr. Timothy Cunningham (right) with his parents

A Strange Disappearance

After he vanished, Cunningham’s case was called “unusual” by Atlanta authorities.

Left behind in his tidy yellow home was the dog he doted on, Mr. “Bo” Bojangles, along with his ID, credit cards and passport. His car was parked in the garage; his keys, wallet and phone all were safely locked inside the residence.

“This is an extremely unusual set of circumstances,” Atlanta police major Michael O’Connor said at a Feb. 27 news conference. “Every single belonging we were aware of was located in the residence.”

He added: “It is not common in missing-person cases for us to find someone’s entire belongings.”

Dr. Timothy Cunningham

The unmarried scientist, 35, was a team leader in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. His career had been marked by accomplishments including co-authoring 28 publications, focusing on how health issues affect minorities. He also worked on numerous public health emergencies, including the Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus.

“Tim was always the golden boy,” a colleague at the CDC previously told PEOPLE.

In his position Cunningham prominently studied heath patterns related to race, gender and geography. For his work, the Atlanta Business Chronicle featured him last October as one of its “40-Under-40” rising stars in the region.

“He expressed a strong desire to improve the health of others,” journalist Tonya Layman, who interviewed Cunningham for his Chronicle profile, told PEOPLE. “I was really impressed with his intellect and his passion for the work he was doing.”