Family in Augusta 'crushed' by news

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Three weeks before former Augustan Marie Bruce was fatally shot at an Athens theater gathering, she and her husband, George Zinkhan, who is accused of the shooting, were celebrating Easter in Augusta with their two children. They had an Easter egg hunt at the home of Ms. Bruce's mother on Skinner Road.

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Marie Bruce, who grew up in Augusta, was one of three people killed Saturday in a shooting in Athens, Ga.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Marie Bruce, who grew up in Augusta, was one of three people killed Saturday in a shooting in Athens, Ga.

Everything seemed fine between the two "as far as we could tell," said Daisy Phelps, the victim's aunt. "She certainly did not tell her mother about any problems."

Ms. Phelps, of Augusta, said Sunday no one in the family could have foreseen the weekend's events, adding that news of Ms. Bruce's death Saturday caused her mother, Betty Bruce, to collapse and be taken to University Hospital for treatment of a mild heart attack.

"When she got the news, she more or less collapsed ... She's all right, and I'm going to bring her home" today.

Ms. Phelps said her family is stunned by what occurred. Police say Mr. Zinkhan, a University of Georgia professor, entered an Athens theater gathering Saturday afternoon and fired several shots, killing his wife, 47; Tom Tanner, 40; and Ben Teague, 63. Two others were wounded and being treated at an Athens hospital.

"We have no answers," Ms. Phelps said, adding that Mr. Zinkhan "seemed very nice. I will say he loved those children. He was good to them, and they loved him, too."

The couple had a girl, 10, and a boy, 8, she said. Mr. Zinkhan also "was such a highly educated man," Ms. Phelps said, adding that he was supposed to leave in a week or two to go to Amsterdam, teaching on behalf of UGA. "He was nationally known."

On Sunday, Ms. Phelps recalled Ms. Bruce as a Westside High graduate who first explored a career in teaching, attending Augusta College for about a year and finishing her undergraduate degree at UGA. After four or five years of teaching, Ms. Phelps said, Marie Bruce attended law school at UGA, graduating in three years and becoming an Athens attorney.

She said she was very involved in theater with the Town and Gown Players, a longstanding community group that was holding an annual reunion when the shootings occurred.

Ms. Phelps said her family hasn't heard much since the shootings.

"We don't know anything," she said late Sunday afternoon. "... We don't know where he is ... We are just so crushed. We just don't know which way to turn."

Authorities continued a nationwide search for Mr. Zinkhan, including a check of airports. A Richmond County Marshal's Office deputy based at Augusta Regional Airport confirmed the facility is among airports checking for Mr. Zinkhan to ensure he doesn't try to leave the country.

Friends of the Bruce family were in shock. Ruth Croft, a next-door neighbor who had known Ms. Bruce since she was 3, recalled her as "just a sweet little girl."

"She was a lovely girl," Ms. Croft said. "... and you won't find a better parent than her mother."

Ms. Croft said she watched Ms. Bruce grow up and eventually move to Athens. She recalled how she liked to act.

"And she was good at it," Ms. Croft said.

Ms. Croft said Marie Bruce and her mother were very involved at Warren Baptist Church.

"Anything that had to do with church, she was right in there helping," she said.

Ms. Croft said she couldn't have asked for better neighbors.

"I feel for her so," Ms. Croft said, referring to Betty Bruce.

Growing up in Augusta, Marie Bruce earned achievements that were often noticed in her hometown newspaper.

From reading and writing awards in her school days to being a semi-finalist in the Miss Augusta Pageant, stories and images of Ms. Bruce often appeared in the pages of The Augusta Chronicle .

In August 1979, a photo shows Ms. Bruce checking her makeup as a contestant in the Miss Augusta Pageant. A year later, a front-page story reports her as a semi-finalist in the 1980 Miss Augusta competition.

She would have been used to being on a stage because a story and photo from May 1980 show her during a rehearsal of The Malice of Empire -- a play performed as part of Augusta College's Third World Program and put on at the Performing Arts Theater.

In April 1976, Ms. Bruce, then at Tutt Junior High School, received an honorable mention in a short story contest of the J.B. White Literary Competition.

And a 1971 photo shows her and several classmates at the old Perrin Elementary School honored for their achievements in a summer reading program.

In December 1970, she is listed among a group of Brownie scouts donating $12.82 to The Chronicle's holiday Empty Stocking Fund.

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