Still questions in Zinkhan case

ATHENS, Ga. -- Officials won't say why it took a week to hear George Zinkhan's cell phone "ping" - the clue that led them to his car - and aren't interested in finding out more precisely when he died, a fact that could show whether the dangerous armed man roamed Athens for several days while police looked for him.


In the days after they wrapped up the case of the 57-year-old professor who murdered three people -- including his wife, a former Augustan -- then killed himself late last month, police won't answer those two questions about their own investigation.

"We're not discussing any cell phone issues, laptops or anything else," said Jim Fullington, special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Athens office. "All I'm going to say is we used every available resource and capability to try to locate him."

But telecommunications and pathology experts have possible answers.

The ping that led officials to Zinkhan's Jeep in a secluded area on the Jackson-Clarke county line could have been the signal Zinkhan's cell phone sent to a transmission tower as its battery died, according to Albert Gidari, a Seattle attorney who specializes in electronic surveillance and communications law.

"If it's off, the carrier might know from the last signaling" where the phone is, said Gidari, who explained that a cell phone sends a final signal when it is powered down or when the battery dies.

A phone can't stay charged an entire week, which is why Zinkhan's may have sent out a last signal when the battery gave out six days after the murders, he said.

Police sometimes need a federal court order to get a cellular carrier's records to search for a phone, according to Gidari.

But finding Zinkhan's phone "had nothing to do with the legal process," Fullington said.

Authorities can find a phone quickly if it's in an urban area with a lot of cell towers that they can use to triangulate its location, said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy public interest group.

But the remote area where Zinkhan intentionally crashed his Jeep may have had only one cell tower nearby, giving authorities a large, general location to search, according to Tien.

"If the phone is making a connection to only one tower, you don't have the advantage to say it was hitting on this tower at a particular time and another tower 10 minutes later," Tien said.

Some officials were convinced Zinkhan had fled the area after ditching the Jeep, but as time passed and he had not contacted anyone, used a credit card or did anything else to indicate he was alive, investigators enlisted the help of cadaver dogs.

The dogs found Zinkhan's body last Saturday - exactly two weeks after he killed his wife, Marie Bruce, 47, Tom Tanner, 40, and Ben Teague, 63, outside Athens Community Theater. The body was completely covered in a shallow grave that he dug himself before he committed suicide.

A state medical examiner determined Zinkhan killed himself five to 14 days before.

"That's not unreasonable to give a wide berth like that," said Dr. Michael Baden, chief pathologist for the New York State Police. "Buried bodies decompose more slowly than unburied bodies."

Officials could have examined stomach contents and made other observations to get a more precise time of death, Baden said, but thoroughness is more important when investigators need to know when a victim died in order to begin looking for suspects and pinning down times in their alibis.

"That all becomes less significant in a situation where he killed himself," Baden said.


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