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Shootings shake close-knit Ga. theater troupe

ATHENS, Ga. - For more than 55 years, the volunteer actors and stagehands of the Town & Gown Players have entertained patrons in this Southern college town with all manner of productions: Shakespearian classics, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and Woody Allen's screwball comedies.

But nothing could prepare them for the real-life tragedy that struck over the weekend.

A gunman, identified by police as University of Georgia marketing professor George Zinkhan, opened fire with two handguns during a reunion picnic for Town & Gown volunteers Saturday outside the Athens Community Theater. Three of the group's members fell dead, including the professor's wife, and two others were injured by shrapnel.

Authorities still don't know the motive for the shooting, and the search for Zinkhan, 57, continued Monday. Police said they had no leads on his whereabouts.

"I've talked to my friends who were there, and they said he was very methodical and went in and just started (shooting)," said Dina Canup, a Town & Gown member since 2001. "It's just unfathomable."

University officials issued a statement Sunday urging students to remain cautious until Zinkhan is arrested.

Meanwhile, the Town & Gown troupe - described by member Jace Gordon as a "second family" - consoled one another and reflected on three slain friends.

Marie Bruce, Zinkhan's wife, had been serving as Town & Gown's president after years of volunteering at the 120-seat, cinderblock theater about a mile from the university campus.

The 47-year-old family attorney had thrown herself into numerous productions as a leading lady, director and set designer as well as less glamorous behind-the-scenes work.

"She's been involved in Town and Gown for so many years, what hasn't she done? Maybe repaired the toilets," Canup said Sunday.

Ben Teague and Tom Tanner, slain alongside Bruce, were the group's two technical wizards who excelled at building elaborate sets - from a haunted tree sprouting ghostly faces for William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" to fashioning giant strips of film into a New York cityscape for Woody Allen's "Play It Again, Sam."

Teague, 63, was one of Town & Gown's longest-serving volunteers, calling himself "a confirmed theater bum." He also had the acting chops to tackle the lead role of Prospero in "The Tempest" two years ago.

"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 Sunday.

Tanner, 40, gave his last performance Friday as Dr. John Watson in the theater's production of "Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure."

Rick Bedell, who played the famed detective alongside Tanner's Watson, said his friend grew his own mutton-chop sideburns to play Holmes' sidekick.

"Tom was a great actor," Bedell said. "There is going to be a giant, gaping hole where these people fell out. The theater is going to continue, people will take their positions. But take their places? I don't think it's possible."

Formed in 1953, Town & Gown has long prided itself on welcoming all comers, regardless of experience: teenagers, seniors, Ph.D-holding professors, carpenters and policemen.

Volunteers put in long hours to stage six productions a year. Members said the work binds them like family.

Friends of the victims left flowers at the theater Sunday and lit candles beneath the building's weathered red awning.

LaBau Bryan, who joined Town & Gown in 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."

Meanwhile, the university prepared to resume classes Monday, a week before final exams begin.

"Police plan to be visible on campus, especially the early part of the week," said university spokesman Pete Konenkamp.Athens-Clarke County police Capt. Clarence Holeman urged people to call police if they see Zinkhan's 2005 red Jeep Liberty with Georgia license plate AIX1376.

Although police say they don't know the motive for the killings, Holeman said an argument erupted between Zinkhan and Bruce outside the theater. He said police believe Zinkhan walked away briefly before returning with two handguns. Each victim was shot multiple times.

"The only people that know what that argument was about, he killed them," Holeman said Sunday.

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, Konenkamp said. Before joining the school in the 1990s, he held academic positions at the universities of Houston and Pittsburgh.

On Sunday The Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam confirmed that Zinkhan has taught there part time since April 2007, visiting for 6 weeks or so each year. In a statement, the institution expressed shock and said Zinkhan had been "a peaceful and talented researcher."

Attorney Hue Henry, who was also a member of the theater group, worked with Bruce. He said his colleague was private about her personal life and didn't say much about Zinkhan.

Authorities initially described her as Zinkhan's ex-wife, although police later said the couple was still married.

"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."

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Associated Press writers Harry R. Weber, Kate Brumback, Bernard McGhee and Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta contributed this report.