In March 2017, Culleoka Unit High School in Tennessee were aware their health science teacher, 50-year-old Tad Cummins may have been engaging in an inappropriate relationship with his 15-year-old female student. An awareness that rapidly turned to horror when both this adult male teacher and his vulnerable teenage student go missing and what follows is a 38-day trek across the United States to escape the detection of the authorities.
When Elizabeth Thomas fails to return home on the evening of 13 March 2017, her father immediately fears she is with her high school health teacher, and for good reason. Just weeks earlier he had been informed by her school that another student had witnessed Tad Cummins kissing Elizabeth Thomas inside his classroom. Tad Cummins had been interviewed by both the school and the police. He, along with Elizabeth, had denied any such kiss had taken place, claiming their relationship was simply a supportive one with Cummins acting as a father figure.
Told to ensure he did not spend time alone with Elizabeth, Tad Cummins had been suspended from his teaching post when it was discovered through CCTV evidence that he had spent over 30 minutes alone with her in his classroom on 3 February 2017, just two days after being questioned by police about his relationship with the teen.
Anthony Thomas reported his daughter’s disappearance and his concerns to the police who began to investigate Elizabeth’s last known movements. According to the criminal complaint against Cummins, police discovered she was dropped off by a friend early on the morning of 13 March 2017 at Shoney’s Restaurant in Columbia, the last known sighting of her before she was reported missing. That same morning, Tad Cummins borrowed his wife’s car and was filmed on CCTV getting petrol at a service garage next door to Shoney’s restaurant. From there, both Elizabeth Thomas and Tad Cummins disappeared.
The following morning police received a phone call from the wife of Tad Cummins who told them that her husband did not come home the previous evening and had left her a strange note. “‘I am so sorry! I just need to clear my mind of all this cr*p. I am not running away,” he’d written, “I’ll be back. Don’t call police they’ll think I ran ’cause I’m guilty and I’m not!” Jill Cummins did call the police, however, it was only after she discovered he had taken thousands of dollars, two handguns and clothes from the house.
Fearing a 50-year-old armed teacher had abducted his 15-year-old student, police issue an Amber Alert for Elizabeth Thomas on 3 April 2017:
“Thomas is believed to be in the company of 50-year old Tad Cummins, white male, 6’0”, 200 pounds, brown hair and eyes. He is believed to be armed with two handguns and driving a Silver Nissan Rogue. A warrant has been issued for Cummins for Sexual Contact with a Minor.”
For the next two weeks, Elizabeth’s family and police frantically searched for her trying to establish where Cummins may have taken her. On 29 March they got their first lead. A hotel employee tells them Tad Cummins had checked into the Super 8 Motel in Oklahoma City on 15th and 16th of March. Detectives confirmed this was indeed Tad Cummins and while there he had asked for directions to a local Walmart. Checking the Walmart store’s CCTV, footage of Cummins and Elizabeth together on 15 March is found. Another motel chain confirmed Cummins had stayed with them in Oklahoma on the following two nights booking only one room with one bed. Any doubts that Cummin’s motives were sexual have now been dismissed.
“This is and was not a romance, this was a manipulation solely to benefit Tad Cummins. This is not a fairy tale, this is a case of kidnapping, and we remain gravely concerned for the well-being of this young girl.”
On 20 April 2017, 38 days after their disappearance police received a phone call which tells them where Cummins is hiding. Cabin caretaker Griffin Barry in California had met the couple and was told by Cummins they were married and Elizabeth was 22-years-old. Cummins asked for help, telling him a house fire had meant they had lost everything. Barry let them stay in a small cabin feeling sorry for the couple but soon began to wonder why Cummin’s ‘wife’ was so quiet and why his car had no license plates, reports CNN. Discussing the odd couple with a friend he discovers the Amber Alert issued for Elizabeth. He soon realises Tad Cummins is not who he says he is and he calls the police.
Following his directions, police found Cummins with Elizabeth in the remote cabin in Cecilville, California, almost 2000 miles away from their home. Tad Cummins was arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping. The evidence police had uncovered about their movements and their stays in hotels led them to believe the relationship was a sexual one resulting in a further charge for Cummins of transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity.
Media reports since Elizabeth Thomas has been found have claimed Tad Cummins purchased a kayak for $1500 with the intention of using it to take her into Mexico. They had begun using the names John and Joanne Castro and Cummins had purposely tried to evade the authorities and ensure they couldn’t be traced by getting rid of their mobile phones and disabling the GPS track on his car. In actions which echo those of UK maths teacher Jeremy Forrest who in 2013 went on the run to France with his 15-year-old student, the relationships which can develop between teacher and student can be complex.
A high school teacher is a trusted and valued member of not only the school but the community and when they abuse that trust, and their position, the consequences can be devastating. Adolescents can be vulnerable to grooming, especially by an adult who is in a position of authority such as a teacher. While teenagers may feel they are ‘in love’, the reality is they have been manipulated into a sexual relationship to serve the sole desires of their groomer.
For Elizabeth Thomas who experienced a troubled home life with her mother facing charges of child abuse against her and her siblings, the attentions of her older teacher may have provided a distraction from her troubles at home and the illusion of love at a time in her life when she was most vulnerable to it.
‘I predict this case will be studied years in the future about how authority figures like Tad Cummins can mess up young children who believe their lies and are manipulated into doing things they would never do.’
Elizabeth’s father, Anthony Thomas is understandably anxious to find out as much as possible as to how Tad Cummins managed to begin a relationship with his daughter. While she was still missing he filed a court petition asking to depose any witnesses who may know anything about the relationship. According to news sources who have seen this petition, it appears Cummins played on Elizabeth’s guilt over the school’s response to their liaisons ensuring she felt responsible for his suspension from his post. Furthermore, evidence from witnesses has suggested “a continuous pattern of grooming by Cummins” including telling Elizabeth her future plans for college and career were now ruined and convincing her the only option was to leave with him.
In the UK case three years ago, 30-year-old London high school teacher Jeremy Forrest claimed he was in love with his student and told her he wanted to marry her promising her the fairy-tale relationship. The two began a relationship when she was 14 and it turned sexual when the girl, named only as ‘Gemma’ turned 15 years old, culminating in them running away together to France using the names Jack Dean and Gemma Grant.
Her family had issued a missing person’s report and feared she had been taken against her will by the teacher; however it soon became apparent through CCTV footage of the pair that the girl was a willing participant in the relationship. The two were on the run for 8 days but as the case gained more media attention and their photos and descriptions were circulated, police received a report from Bordeaux in France that they had been spotted.
When picked up returned to the UK, Forrest was convicted of child abduction and five counts of sexual activity with a child and sentenced to five and a half years in jail. Initially the girl stood by Forrest saying she was in love with him and would wait for him to come out of prison for them to resume their relationship. Over time it appears she has realised the reality of their relationship and has now reportedly found a boyfriend of her own age and is no longer in contact with Forrest, who was released from prison in 2015.
Tad Cummins is now being held in jail facing a minimum 10 year prison term and the possibility of a life sentence for his actions. This week a federal grand jury formally indicted him for transporting a child over state lines for the purpose of engaging in criminal sexual activity and he now faces an additional charge of obstruction of justice for destroying their mobile phones in attempts to prevent authorities from finding them. Elizabeth Cummins has been safely reunited with her family but has a long road ahead of her dealing with her relationship with Cummins and his attempt to take her away from everything she knew.