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Son claims body of professor accused in killings

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Son from previous marriage claims University of Georgia professor's body
  • Acquaintances, colleagues remember George Zinkhan as eccentric, aloof
  • Neighbor: Children unaware of mother's slaying; daughter mentioned "firecracker"
  • Student, colleague both thought Zinkhan may be dangerous before triple killing
By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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ATHENS, Georgia (CNN) -- The body of accused triple killer and University of Georgia professor George Zinkhan was claimed by a relative Friday, nearly a week after Zinkhan was found dead, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said.

Witnesses say Zinkhan killed his wife and two others during a picnic outside a community theater.

A studio proof shows professor George Zinkhan and his wife, Marie Bruce.

A mortuary shipping service in Atlanta picked up Zinkhan's body at the request of a son from a previous marriage, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said. Details on plans for the body weren't immediately available.

Earlier Friday, Bankhead had said Zinkhan's body -- found Saturday in a self-dug shallow grave -- could be headed to a pauper's grave if the family didn't claim the body from the Athens-Clarke County coroner's office by Saturday morning.

Such a grave is typically reserved for unidentified bodies, unclaimed bodies or people without family members.

Bankhead said the situation was rare and that it was unclear why the family had taken that long to claim the body of the professor, described by colleagues and acquaintances as aloof and eccentric.

Neighbor Bob Covington remembers a lot of "forced moments" with Zinkhan.

The last such interaction came the afternoon of April 24, the day before witnesses said Zinkhan, 57, killed his wife and two others outside a community theater in Athens.

Covington was walking down the driveway of his Bogart home to check the mail. Zinkhan had just done the same and was walking back to his house. Covington said hello and told Zinkhan that his son, a UGA student who used to mow the Zinkhans' lawn, had recently seen Zinkhan on campus.

"He said, 'Yeah, that's where I hang out,' and turned and walked into the house," said Covington, who lived next door to Zinkhan for eight years."That's mostly what it was with George, forced moments."

It was odd for Zinkhan to say more than five or 10 words before disengaging, while his wife, Marie Bruce, was the "polar opposite," Covington said, describing the 47-year-old thespian as engaging and vivacious.

Despite the contrasts in personalities, Covington never saw evidence that there were problems between the two, he said.

"He never raised his voice at his kids. I never heard that. I never heard him raise his voice at Marie," he said.

Neighbors, students and fellow faculty members all concur that Zinkhan was standoffish, but their accounts also paint a contradictory image of the marketing professor who would occasionally walk the halls of UGA's business college barefoot.

Some faculty members were quick to defend Zinkhan, but reluctant to do so on record. One said he felt it was a university matter. Another was reluctant to be on record defending an accused mass killer.

"He's being painted as an ogre, which doesn't fit," said the former.

Two faculty members said Zinkhan was introverted but friendly. He was close to some colleagues. He remembered their birthdays and was generous with gifts at Christmas.

His quirky behavior was generally overlooked because of his brilliance, a colleague said. One fellow professor went so far as to call him a genius, and not just with marketing, either.

Zinkhan apparently was well-versed in a wide range of topics -- art, opera, architecture -- and he loved sports. Faculty members recalled that the strapping 6-foot-2 Zinkhan played on the intramural softball team with some of his graduate students, and he liked to boast of his home runs.

He also loved his son, 8, and daughter, 10, and regularly brought them to work.

Neighbors said they saw him outside playing soccer with the kids on a miniature goal that still sat in the yard this week. A basketball goal with a rim a foot or two below regulation stood over the Zinkhans' driveway, and a miniature yellow house sat dormant in his wooded backyard.

A neighbor who asked not to be named said the cedar front door on the house Tuesday was new. A SWAT team had burst through the old front door shortly after Zinkhan allegedly shot Bruce; attorney Tom Tanner, 40; and Ben Teague, 63.

Bruce was the president of the board of the Town and Gown Players, a theater group holding a reunion picnic on the theater's deck when the shooting took place. Tanner and Teague were identified as set designers for the theater.

Covington saw Zinkhan shortly after the April 25 slayings. He was grilling bratwursts for lunch when Zinkhan rang the doorbell.

"He asked if I'd mind watching the kids because there'd been an emergency," Covington said.

Covington agreed. He thought it was strange when Zinkhan immediately sprinted out of the garage, but didn't pay it much attention because Zinkhan said he had an emergency.

The children, Covington said, seemed oblivious that their mother had just been slain. It was less than an hour later, when Covington's wife noticed two police officers with shotguns behind the hedges in a nearby yard, that Covington learned his neighbor was accused of a triple killing.

The police told Covington they were looking for Zinkhan in connection with the shootings.

"I was incredulous," he said.

Covington's daughter, who had baby-sat for the Zinkhans, drew a floor plan of the Zinkhan home for police and told them where the spare key was hidden.

Covington allowed police to use his home in their stakeout and summoned Zinkhan's daughter to see whether she knew anything about what had happened.

It was clear the girl hadn't seen the slayings, but one of her remarks was chilling, Covington said. Asked what her father's emergency involved, she replied, "Something about a firecracker."

Though many expressed astonishment that Zinkhan was linked to the slayings, some UGA faculty members said they suspected Zinkhan was having problems at home before police confirmed it this week. He lost an estimated 50 pounds in the two months before the shootings, they said.

To others, the signs of problems were more obvious.

Professor Barbara Carroll, who had once worked under Zinkhan, wrote an e-mail to her colleagues at the business school saying she went into protective custody after police found a map to her house in Zinkhan's vehicle.

In the e-mail, she said she had told previous department heads, deans and provosts "that George Zinkhan was dangerous."

"Many people in this college and this department have known about Zinkhan's 'troubled past' and did nothing about it. Those people also bear responsibility here," she wrote.

Carroll did not return phone messages or open her door for reporters Tuesday.

However, one of Zinkhan's former students said he and his classmates also thought Zinkhan was more than just odd. David Sackin, 43, was a graduate student and took classes with Zinkhan in 1996 and 1997.

Zinkhan's lectures were delivered in monotone, his teaching style was dry and he didn't seem to care what was happening in the classroom, Sackin said.

When students convened outside the classroom, they surmised that something darker than a lack of enthusiasm drove Zinkhan's behavior, he said.

"If anyone asked any of my classmates if there was one professor who'd go on a rampage, who would it be? They'd unanimously say Zinkhan," Sackin said."He was strange, definitely."

In her e-mail, Carroll told colleagues they may never know the whole story. Indeed, police have said only that one of the victims, Tanner, "appeared to be a specific target in the shootings and was shot first."

The prospect of learning specifics about what could have propelled a painfully private introvert to homicide probably died in a shallow grave behind a Bogart elementary school.

CNN's Jason Hanna contributed to this report.

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