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Abducted by her teacher: The story of Elizabeth Thomas' disappearance

Elizabeth Thomas
Image: Elizabeth Thomas | Beyond The Headlines: The Elizabeth Thomas Story

Beyond The Headlines: The Elizabeth Thomas Story is a one-hour special in which Elizabeth Thomas sits down for her first interview in five years, to share new revelations about her ordeal. With the subject of grooming still widely misunderstood, these new details offer a rare insight into the experience of survivors.

The show airs Saturday, 25th November at 9pm on Crime + Investigation and will be available to stream on Crime + Investigation Play.

On 13th March 2017, 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas was reported missing by her father in Columbia, Tennessee. That morning, at 8am, a friend dropped her off at a Shoney’s restaurant, but she failed to return home in the afternoon, prompting the missing person report. Simultaneously, 50-year-old Tad Cummins left a note for his wife, explaining his departure for Virginia Beach or Washington D.C. to ‘think’ and urging her not to involve the police. In the days leading up to his departure, Cummins had obtained a title loan for a personal vehicle, securing $4,500 in cash.

The connection between the two disappearances was quickly established by the police. Elizabeth had been a student at Culleoka Unit School, where Cummins worked as a teacher. Cummins had assumed a mentorship role for Elizabeth when she transitioned from home-schooling to public school in September the year beforehand. Cummins was a married man of deep faith with experience in mission work in the rainforest of Panama and teaching Sunday school.

At first, Elizabeth thought that she had found solace in Cummins after coming from an abusive background. According to Elizabeth, her mother had been physically abusive to her and her sisters growing up. Eventually, they reported their mother, Kimberly, to Child Protective Services, and she was removed from the home after being charged with child abuse and neglect. Elizabeth’s father, Anthony, worked long hours as an exterminator and claimed he had no idea how bad things had gotten at home.

However, as time progressed, the relationship between Elizabeth and her teacher became inappropriate. Cummins singled her out as a vulnerable girl with a troubled home life who he could easily manipulate and groom. In a later interview with ABC News, Elizabeth recalled, ‘He’d just be staring at me during class. He was always eyeballing me, looking at me, sitting at our table.’ She recollected how on one occasion, he told her that she would ‘look nice naked’.

On 23rd January, Cummins was caught kissing Elizabeth by another student who reported it to school officials the following day. Despite this, Cummins was allowed to stay at the school for the next two weeks, while Maury County Public Schools and Maury County Sheriff’s Department investigated the incident. Elizabeth was removed from his class and they were instructed to have no contact.

On 3rd February, Elizabeth was discovered in Cummins' classroom, leading to his suspension pending an investigation. Despite the suspension, he and Elizabeth maintained a clandestine relationship, with him either picking her up from her home or appearing unannounced at her after-school job. It wasn't until the day he disappeared with Elizabeth that he was finally fired from the school.

On that same day, the State of Alabama issued an Amber Alert for Elizabeth, expressing concern that she was with Cummins, who was reportedly armed with two handguns. The alert provided details that Cummins was driving a Silver Nissan Rogue with TN license plate 976ZPT. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) emphasised the urgency, stating, ‘It’s absolutely important that everyone in this nation knows about these individuals because frankly, they could be anywhere right now.’

The following day, 125 tips had been received, but none yielded any credible sightings of Elizabeth or Cummins. Detectives noted that the limited number of tips suggested they were likely evading public view, possibly outside the southeast where most media coverage had focused. The TBI released additional photographs of Elizabeth, and revealed to the public the dynamic of the relationship between her and Cummins, ‘Though the TBI cannot discuss specifics at this time, investigative efforts have revealed a troubling pattern of behaviour 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.’

In a press conference, Cummins' wife, Jill, made a heartfelt plea for her husband to surrender and bring Elizabeth home. She expressed, ‘Like so many of you, I am deeply troubled by what has happened in the past few days. I had no idea my husband was involved.’

On 17th March, the TBI issued a nationwide BOLO (Be On the Lookout), emphasizing the urgency. A spokesperson declared, ‘We amped up our language because we really need the public to realize that this young girl is in danger. Again she's 15 and he's 50. He's now facing a charge in which district attorneys confirmed her to be the victim and they're missing. They could be anywhere. We want her home, we want him in custody.’

The days elapsed without any sightings of Elizabeth or Cummins. It was revealed that Cummins was now facing charges of aggravated kidnapping and having sexual contact with Elizabeth. He was added to the state's Most Wanted list, and a $1,000 reward was announced for information leading to his capture.

On 19th April, around 11pm, 36 days after Elizabeth and Cummins disappeared, a tip reached the TBI regarding a potential sighting of them in Siskiyou County, located in the northernmost part of California. Detectives promptly arrived in the area, identifying a Nissan Rogue suspected to be Cummins' vehicle. After placing it under surveillance for several hours, they tracked it to a tiny cabin in a rural area of Cecilville. Detectives established a perimeter around the cabin, and in the early hours of the following morning, Cummins emerged and was promptly arrested. Elizabeth was found unharmed inside.

Following the arrest, details emerged about the 36 days Elizabeth and Cummins spent on the run. Cummins had picked up Elizabeth outside Shoney's after she was dropped off. He took measures to avoid detection, disabling the GPS on his car, installing a mattress in the back, and exchanging his Tennessee license plates for Alabama ones. They disposed of their cell phones in the Tennessee River.

Their journey continued with two nights at Super 8 motels in Oklahoma before heading to California, where Cummins purchased a tablet to follow the news coverage of the search for them. They then proceeded to Utah, staying for four nights before venturing on to Nevada and eventually reaching San Diego. At some point during the 38 days, Cummins secured new identities for both himself and Elizabeth, opting for ‘Spanish-sounding names’ to blend in better upon reaching Mexico. They assumed the fake identities of 40-year-old John Castro and 24-year-old Joanna Castro, posing as a married couple.

Upon reaching San Diego, Cummins purchased a kayak to take Elizabeth to Mexico so that they could be together. After several test runs, he deemed it too perilous to cross open water and recognised that crossing by land was not a viable option. Consequently, they opted to camp in Northern California, where they were eventually located in a small cabin with no electricity or running water. Upon Cummins' apprehension, he confessed to ‘having sex’ with Elizabeth ‘most nights’ during their time on the run.

In April 2018, Tad Cummins pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes. During the sentencing proceedings, Elizabeth directly addressed Cummins. In an emotionally charged statement, she labelled him a ‘sick, disgusting criminal’ who ‘violated me over and over again for months’. She accused Cummins of preying on her vulnerability, stating, ‘I will live with the scars you left on me forever’.

During the sentencing proceedings, it came to light that Cummins' grooming of Elizabeth was part of a larger pattern. Special Agent Sterling Wall revealed that Cummins had attempted to groom another student ‘in a very similar manner’, only ceasing when the student relocated. When given the opportunity to make a statement, Cummins apologised, expressing, ‘If there's ever anything that I can do to give you closure, I stand ready. But I know there's not. I just want you to know I'm sorry.’

Despite the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years behind bars for Cummins' convictions, prosecutors sought a 30-year sentence. However, Judge Aleta Trauger ultimately sentenced him to 20 years in prison.