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CDC researcher who mysteriously vanished in February has been found dead

The body of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Timothy Cunningham has been pulled from the Chattahoochee River, police say. (Atlanta Police Department)
The body of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Timothy Cunningham has been pulled from the Chattahoochee River, police say. (Atlanta Police Department)

Nearly two months after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher mysteriously vanished after leaving CDC headquarters in Atlanta, he has been found dead, police said.

An Atlanta Police Department spokesman said Thursday that a body was recovered from the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta this week and that authorities have positively identified the deceased person as Timothy Cunningham.

Cunningham, a 35-year-old epidemiologist, vanished Feb. 12, not long after learning why he had been passed over for a promotion.

Police Maj. Michael O’Connor previously said that Cunningham had told his colleagues that he was not well, then headed home early from work.

Since then, authorities had been searching nearby woods, canvassing hospitals and jails, reviewing cellphone records, looking in cemeteries and even flying over the immediate area with a helicopter looking for signs of life — or worse.

Authorities have not provided details about the discovery of Cunningham’s body but have scheduled a news conference for Thursday afternoon in Atlanta.

Police said earlier that they did not suspect foul play but had not ruled it out, either, and Cunningham’s family and Atlanta CrimeStoppers offered a $10,000 reward for information.

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“Tim is a very loving, brilliant, and responsible young man,” according to a GoFundMe page. “Therefore, his sudden disappearance is highly irregular and very much out of character for him. His friends, family, and colleagues are desperately searching for him. We are launching this fundraising campaign to collect funds that will be used to establish a reward for information that will help locate Tim.”

About a week before his disappearance, Cunningham was told by his CDC supervisor that he would not get a promotion; an explanation was given to him on Feb. 12 — the Monday he went missing.

O’Connor, commander of the police department’s major crimes division, has said that police do not know why Cunningham was denied the promotion. The CDC did not respond to a request for an explanation.

Cunningham told co-workers that he was “upset” about the decision, authorities have said.

He left work soon after, saying he was not feeling well. He had also called in sick Feb. 8 and 9, the two previous workdays, O’Connor said.

O’Connor has stressed that investigators have not uncovered any evidence that Cunningham’s promotion snub was directly linked to his disappearance. The CDC did not identify any problems with his job performance or workplace issues beyond the promotion denial, O’Connor said.

“We’re open to any and all possibilities,” O’Connor previously said, though he declined to say how investigators were taking Cunningham’s mental health into account during the search.

Cunningham’s work at the CDC fueled speculation and conspiracy theories about his disappearance, including one dubious story on a website that said Cunningham disappeared amid warnings that his patients were dying from botched flu vaccines.

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But Cunningham worked in the CDC’s chronic disease unit, not in the section that deals with infectious disease, according to authorities.

“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.”

The incident took other bizarre turns, too.

Viviana Tory, a neighbor of Cunningham’s, reported an odd encounter between her husband and Cunningham the day before he disappeared.

“He told my husband to tell his wife — me — to erase his cellphone number from my cellphone,” she told CBS.

O’Connor confirmed the claim and told reporters that he would follow up, but he had few details about its significance. Police spokesman D.T. Hannah said that no further information was available.

“The most unusual factor in this case is that every single belonging that we are aware of was located in the residence,” O’Connor previously told reporters. “His keys, his cellphone, credit cards, debit cards, wallet, all of his identification, passports. Anything you could think of, we’ve been able to locate. None of those items are missing.”

Cunningham had no Uber or Lyft transactions that day, and his car and dog, Mr. Bojangles, were found at his home, O’Connor added.

Cunningham’s father, Terrell, told the New York Times that he had concerns after recent interactions with his son, whom he described as focused on a host of professional and personal issues.

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“The tone and the numerous exchanges gave us reason to be concerned about Tim,” he said. “And I don’t know if it’s an instinct you have because it’s your child, but it was not a normal conversation, and I was not comfortable.”

Cunningham’s parents were notified by police about four bodies found as part of the search, only to be told later that none of them was of their son.

“It takes you to a place that the light is not shining in,” Terrell Cunningham told CNN. The family has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Post.

Tim Cunningham had been a prominent fixture in the Atlanta community. In an Atlanta Business Chronicle 40 Under 40 Awards profile last year, Cunningham said he was “using the skills I have to improve and help the lives of others,” referring to his work at the CDC.

The article said he was continuing on his family’s path into the medical field; his father was an Air Force nurse for 30 years, and his mother worked for the state health department as a program manager.

“Dr. Cunningham’s colleagues and friends at CDC hope that he is safe,” CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben told The Post. “We want him to return to his loved ones and his work — doing what he does best as a CDC disease detective — protecting people’s health.”

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