A Tennessee high school freshman who was on the run with a 50-year-old married teacher has been found safe in a northern California cabin.
Elizabeth Thomas, 15, “has been safely recovered in Northern California,” reported the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on April 20. “Tad Cummins is under arrest,” TBI added. In a press release, authorities said Cummins and Thomas were located in a Cecilville, California cabin not far from the Oregon/California border.
Authorities said Thomas was healthy and unharmed, but their main concern is how she is “emotionally and mentally.” If she needs help, authorities said, they want to offer it to her. “At the end of the day, she’s 15-years-old. She’s a young girl with a grown man,” authorities said in a news conference, adding of Cummins’ capture: “You can’t hide from that many millions of people.”
The capture of Cummins and recovery of Thomas ends the more than month-long saga of the Tennessee health teacher and his student, who vanished in the midst of an investigation into a complaint that he was spotted kissing her in a classroom. Since that time, authorities had launched a massive manhunt for the pair, who both filled their Instagram pages with love posts before vanishing.
Cummins, a father and grandfather whose wife, Jill, is now divorcing him, has been fired. Thomas was a student at the school where he taught. The teacher and student had eluded authorities for more than a month, with the last sighting of them coming in an Oklahoma City Walmart in mid-March.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Thomas’ Father Says Cummins Brainwashed Her & the Teacher Was Calling the Pair ‘John’ & ‘Joanna’
Before disappearing together, both the teacher and student wrote constantly about love and soulmates on their respective Instagram pages. It’s not clear whether Thomas will say she went willingly.
Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kelly Giordano told the Tennessean that “Cummins’ vehicle was found in their California jurisdiction Wednesday night” April 19. The car was under surveillance, authorities in Tennessee said.
The man who tipped off authorities that Cummins and Thomas were in California, Griffin Barry, also gave a television interview in which he said, “The girl really wasn’t looking at me or anything and he was kind of dominating the conversation,” reports the Tennessean, which adds that Cummins claimed the pair was named John and Joanna and that his belongings were lost in a fire. The two had previously been staying at a commune, the Tennessean says Griffin claimed.
Cummins and Thomas were only in the area about a week, CNN reported, adding that the caretaker tipped police off and helped lure Cummins out of the cabin on his own under the ruse of building a rock wall.
Thomas’ father says he thinks the 15-year-old was brainwashed.
“We want her to know we love her,” Thomas’ father, Anthony Thomas, said on Good Morning America, the morning after authorities said they’d found Elizabeth in a northern California cabin with Cummins, who was then arrested.
“She’s been with Cummins for a little over a month now and after that sort of thing, after that sort of ordeal she was through, it’s going to take some working with her for awhile,” the father said. You can watch the video interview above.
“Do you think she was brainwashed?” host George Stephanopoulos asked Thomas, who was flanked by some of Thomas’ siblings.
“Yes,” Anthony Thomas answered.
You can watch that interview here:
He said the family had not yet spoken with Elizabeth as of the morning of April 21, but that she was expected to be flown back to Tennessee later in the day. He said there will be therapy involved. “Because we love her so much, we’re going to be patient with her. We’ve got to get her the help she needs,” said the father. One of her siblings described her as a “social butterfly” who was happy with life before she went missing.
Initially, authorities said the pair was found in a commune, but it turned out that wasn’t the case, reports the Tennessean.
Asked about that earlier report on the commune, though, authorities said they couldn’t comment.
You can watch the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation news conference on the capture above.
“She will soon be back home,” authorities said in the news conference of Thomas. They said they had received a tip from the public that led to Cummins’ capture, and that they expect criminal charges will keep him behind bars for quite some time. “It only takes one tip,” TBI officials said. They said the pair was found in a “remote area” and that Thomas will be flying back home on a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation aircraft soon.
Prosecutors said the state has an aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor charge available to it. Authorities said they want to reacquaint Thomas with her family and friends.
Thomas’ Instagram profile calls her a “wife” and contains numerous recent graphics about love and soulmates, but some of her posts were disturbing.
Thomas also wrote about being broken, ugly, and wanting to die. One of her last posts was about Beauty and the Beast and contained the saying, “every beauty needs her beast to protect her from everything but him.”
Cummins allegedly researched teen marriage before vanishing with Thomas, a teen who had been an alleged victim of family abuse and was home schooled until this year.
On Twitter, Cummins described himself as “Jesus freak/child of The King, husband, father, grandfather, high-school teacher, clinician, drummer, audio tech, jeep owner, singer/songwriter, warrior-poet.” He’s been married since 1985, according to his Facebook page, which is filled with photos of Cummins and his wife, Jill, and family. Jill Cummins is now divorcing him.
Cummins’ wife went before the television cameras to plead with her husband to return.
2. Cummins Expressed That He Was Glad the Saga Was Over, Police Say, but Thomas’ Mood Shifted Suddenly
The teacher who was the subject of an intense national manhunt told police, when caught, “I’m glad this is over,” police said.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, until April 20, authorities say Thomas was last seen on a Monday morning, March 13, “at approximately 8:00 AM at the Shoney’s in Columbia, Tennessee, after being dropped off there by a friend. Her parents reported her as missing later that same day.”
After being located, Thomas’ emotions vacillated, authorities said.
Siskiyou County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Gilley told CNN: “It was a very traumatic experience for her. Her mood was very alternating. The two obviously have a relationship … her response to us and to law enforcement escalated up and down.”
On March 20, the TBI released what it says was the last known photo of Thomas, whom they say was kidnapped:
Authorities wrote on March 20, “One week ago today, Elizabeth Thomas vanished from Columbia, Tennessee. Our efforts to locate her – and the man believed to have kidnapped her – remain active and ongoing, but to this point have produced no credible sightings or actionable information about their whereabouts. The individuals could be anywhere.”
Police also released surveillance video they said was of Cummins filling up his car with gas before taking off with Thomas.
On March 20, authorities released these videos of Cummins in a store:
Thomas “changed her social media bio to ‘wife’ before disappearing,” reported UK Daily Mail.
Investigators said at one point that they “can place Thomas in Decatur, Alabama at approximately 3:06 CST on Monday afternoon (March 13), though neither individual has a known connection there and may have just been passing through the area.”
Authorities received more than 450 tips but the pair seemed to have disappeared into thin air at first, leading them to believe “Cummins could have Thomas hidden from view of the general public or far away from Tennessee.”
The TBI had urged “property owners – especially in rural areas – to search their grounds for Cummins.
3. The Teacher & Student Vanished After Cummins Came Under Investigation for Allegedly Kissing Thomas in a Classroom & he Could Face at Least Ten Years in Prison
Now that he’s been captured, Cummins will have to face the music back home – both from his family and the system. Cummins “was charged with one federal count of transportations of a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse,” which could bring him 10 years in prison, according to CNN.
You can read the charges here. They include allegations that Cummins rented a Super 8 hotel room, purchased chocolate cheese cubes and KY jelly at a Walmart, and had a prescription for Cialis pills.
According to ABC 7 Chicago, the teacher was accused of having sexual contact with Thomas only a short time before the pair disappeared.
Thomas’ sister Sarah Thomas “said she heard Cummins tell stories with other students about being in the FBI, CIA and Secret Service” and called him a “weirdo,” <a href=”http://www.wsmv.com/story/34968081/sister-of-amber-alert-victim-says-bullying-was-an-issue
According to WSMV. Sarah said that Thomas was bullied in school, the television station reported. Authorities “confirmed that Cummins is charged in connection with an alleged sexual interaction with Thomas at the school where he taught and she was a student,” the television station reported, adding that the “school district suspended Cummins when the allegations surfaced and terminated his employment Tuesday” March 15.
Thomas was arrested on April 20, and will be brought back to Tennessee to face likely charges.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports that “District Attorney General Brent Cooper confirmed the details of the incident for which Cummins now faces a charge is connected to an alleged interaction between Cummins and Thomas at the school where he taught and where she was a student.”
The school released a detailed timeline of the case. You can read it here.
According to The Columbia Daily Herald, another student walked in on Cummins and Thomas kissing in a classroom. “Cummins and Thomas were sitting side by side in chairs and kissed on the lips as the grandchild, who also attends Culleoka, was using one of the classroom’s computers,” the newspaper reported.
Cummins was suspended February 6 after the report, and authorities were still investigating the matter when he vanished with Thomas, according to the Daily Herald, which said the witness had regarded Cummins as a mentor and told her mother what she saw.
According to CNN, Thomas had taken forensics with Cummins and told the school authorities, according to an investigative report, that “she goes to Cummins’ classroom when she becomes upset or anxious. She considers him a friend and he knows how to calm her down. Other students feel the same about him, she says. She denies that they’ve ever kissed and says that she has been to church with him and his wife. The only times Cummins touched her, she says, is when he gives her the occasional fist bump.”
According to the newspaper, the witness confronted Cummins about the situation, and “he told her they had a daughter-father relationship. They went to church together every Sunday with Tad’s wife. He said he wanted to reassure Beth that no matter how rough her life has been, he was there for her.”
The TBI determined that “Cummins secured a title loan for a personal vehicle and other personal effects several days before his disappearance, netting $4,500 in cash.”
Cummins was added to the 10 Most Wanted list on March 17, the newspaper reported.
4. Thomas Was Home Schooled & Had an Abusive Family Life
The full picture of Thomas’ life paints a picture of a troubled teenager with a difficult home life. Authorities accuse Cummins of preying on that vulnerability and grooming her.
According to WSMV, Thomas was home schooled until her freshman year of high school. The television station quoted the local district attorney as saying her home life was troubled.
The television station reported that “police arrested Elizabeth’s mother, Kimberly Thomas, last year. She was charged with five counts of child abuse and neglect. According to court documents, Kimberly Thomas beat Elizabeth and four of her siblings.”
WSMV reported that Elizabeth told investigators her mother “banged her head into the agitator of the washing machine” and “threw her down the basement stairs and locked her down there.” Kimberly Thomas “is also accused of making the children get naked in front of several other people,” the television station reported, adding that “Elizabeth is one of 10 children in a single-parent home because her father now has full custody of all of them.”
On Twitter, Thomas’ father has implored his daughter to come home, saying she has been missing since March 17.
In one heartbreaking post, he wrote, “Izzy! Please come home to us! I can’t live without you!!!????”
The other posts said Thomas was missing and urged the public to help find her. Authorities say that they believe Cummins’ planned the vanishing act in advance.
On his Twitter page, Cummins had posted sayings about teaching, including retweeting this one:
He also posted about politics, indicating he was tuning into a debate to hear Donald Trump, and posted photos of himself with other students in school activities. He taught at Culleoka Unit School, according to WHNT, which quoted surprised neighbors describing Cummins as devoted to his family, down-to-earth, and intelligent.
An Instagram page in Cummins’ name posted numerous photos about love in recent days. Among them, “you’re all my heart ever talks about” and “It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”
Although his Instagram page was littered with photos about being in love, Cummins shared his Facebook page with his wife, Jill, and mostly posted photos of the couple and family on it.
Culleoka Unit School describes itself as “located in the southeastern corner of Maury County, Tennessee, USA. The school serves over 1,000 students in kindergarten through grade 12.”
5. Authorities Were ‘Extremely Concerned’ About the Teen’s Welfare
Despite the love postings, Tennessee authorities said from the start that they were very concerned about Thomas and considered her a victim.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said in a statement that authorities are “extremely concerned for the well-being of Elizabeth Thomas, the victim in an ongoing AMBER Alerts in Tennessee and Alabama.”
“Though the TBI cannot discuss specifics at this time, investigative efforts have revealed a troubling pattern of behavior by Tad Cummins, suggesting the 50-year-old may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her,” reported the TBI.
According to the UK Daily Mail, Cummins, a health teacher, met the teen, who was one of a family of 10 children, “through the local chapter of HOSA, an international student organization that promotes career opportunities in the health care industry.”
“What Tad did, he stole my daughter from me, but Maury County is a big community. He didn’t just steal from me, he stole from the whole community,” her father said at a vigil.
Cummins’ wife, Jill, went public to plead with her husband to return the teenager.
“Let me speak directly to my husband,” Jill Cummins said, Fox-17 Nashville reported. “Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are. We can help you get through this. No matter how far you’ve gone or what’s happening right now, God’s grace is sufficient for you and He wants you to come home. Your family wants their Papi back. Please do the right thing, and turn yourself into the police and bring Beth home.”
Cummins has no adult criminal record in Tennessee, according to WHNT-TV.