George Zinkhan, a 57-year-old marketing professor at the University of Georgia, was last seen Saturday afternoon shortly after the shooting when he dropped his two young children off at his neighbor's house, police said.
Authorities initially described one of the victims, Marie Bruce, as Zinkhan's ex-wife, although police later said the couple was still married.
Investigators have received no tips about Zinkhan's whereabouts and urged people to call police if they see his 2005 red Jeep Liberty with Georgia license plate AIX1376.
State and federal authorities are assisting in the search. Investigators were monitoring airports in case Zinkhan tried to head to Amsterdam, where he owns a home, and speaking with law enforcement agencies in Austin, Texas, where he has relatives. Officials hope Zinkhan will surface, said Athens-Clarke County Police Capt. Clarence Holeman.
"Criminals make mistakes. It doesn't matter if you've got a Ph.D., an M.D. or whatever," Holeman said.
Meanwhile, friends of the victims dropped off flowers and lit candles Sunday morning in front of the Athens Community Theater. The victims — Bruce, 47; Tom Tanner, 40; and Ben Teague, 63 — were members of Town & Gown Players, a local theater group that was staging a performance of "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure" this weekend at the theater. Two others were hurt by shrapnel.
"Ben, Marie and Tom were a part of our family, and as painful as their loss is for us, we know it is even more painful for their families," the theater group said in a statement Sunday afternoon. "There are no words we can use to adequately express our grief."
LaBau Bryan, a member of Town & Gown Players since 1988, said Bruce cast her in her first role with the group, in the "The Mikado." On her way to church, Bryan dropped off a small vase containing cuttings from an English dogwood, azalea and iris — one for each of the victims.
"It's a personal loss," Bryan said, crying. "It's a terrible, terrible blow to the theater."
It was midday Saturday when a few dozen members of the theater group were gathered at the Athens Community Theater a short distance from campus. Some described it as a reunion, a homecoming for current and former group members. Most were inside the theater, while a small group was gathered around a few benches outside.
Holeman, the police captain, said an argument erupted between Zinkhan and Bruce. Holeman said police believe Zinkhan walked away briefly, before returning with two handguns.
Each victim was shot multiple times, according to the county coroner.
Holeman said Zinkhan had his son and daughter with him when he went to the theater, but left them in the Jeep when the shooting occurred.
None of the 20 witnesses interviewed by police overheard the argument and couldn't say what prompted the shooting, Holeman said, though he described the slayings as "a crime of passion."
SWAT members, guns drawn, later swarmed Zinkhan's tidy middle-class suburb about seven miles from the campus and searched his two-story colonial house. They also searched his office at the university, which had issued a campus-wide alert immediately following the shooting as a precaution.
When Zinkhan dropped his children off, he told his neighbor, Robert Covington, that he needed someone to watch them for about an hour because of an emergency. The children are around the ages of 8 and 10.
Covington said when he asked Zinkhan's daughter about the emergency, "all she would relate to me was there was something about a firecracker."
Zinkhan, who has a doctorate from the University of Michigan, is a professor at UGA's Terry College of Business and had no disciplinary problems, university spokesman Pete Konenkamp said. Before joining the school in the 1990s, he held academic positions at the universities of Houston and Pittsburgh.
Bruce, a family law attorney who specialized in divorce cases, had been a member of Town & Gown Players for several years and currently served as the group's president. She was a graduate of the University of Georgia's law school.
Friends said she had performed just about every job imaginable at the theater — from playing leading roles to directing and taking care of behind-the-scenes work such as overseeing season tickets and collecting dues from members.
"She's been involved in Town and Gown for so many years, what hasn't she done? Maybe repaired the toilets," said Dina Canup, a former president of the group.
Teague, who played Prospero in William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" two years ago, was better known for his wizardry in building elaborate sets. He was among the group's longest-serving volunteers and considered a mentor by many. On his Web site, he described himself as "a confirmed theater bum."
"Yesterday Ben was murdered, which is hard to comprehend and impossible to accept," Teague's wife, university professor Fran Teague, said in a written statement. "It was a beautiful day, however, and he was in his favorite place with the people he loved."
Tanner had grown his own mutton-chop sideburns to play Dr. John Watson in the "Sherlock Homes" play that opened April 17. Performances were canceled yesterday. Tanner also loved to build eye-popping sets. "Most would call him a genius," Town & Gown's statement said.
"Tom's idea for the next production was to build the world's largest pop-up book," said Rick Bedell, who played Holmes alongside Tanner's Watson. "He was looking at the 'Guiness Book of World Records,' and they had one that was 18-by-8 feet, and he was looking at 33-feet-by-8, something like that."
Attorney Hue Henry, who was also a member of the theater group and knew all the victims well, worked with Bruce and said his colleague was private about her personal life and didn't say much about Zinkhan.
"She loved to talk about her children but never talked about her husband or their relationship," Henry said in a telephone interview from Italy. "It never seemed like a very close relationship. But I never saw anything that indicated she might be in danger, nothing to make me worry about her."