They traveled about as far away from Tennessee as they could get in the US, finally settling — at least for a night — in a remote cabin on a tree-covered mountainside in Northern California.
The man told people the young woman with him was his wife. He said their house had burned down in Colorado, and he was down to his last dollar.
But Tad Cummins failed to mention that he was the subject of a nationwide manhunt and that his companion, 15, had been his student, listed in an Amber Alert as abducted and in danger.
During the five weeks the teacher and student were missing, residents tied green ribbons on trees back in Culleoka, Tennessee. There, relatives of the teenager fielded dozens of media inquiries, while authorities plastered the airwaves and the Internet with surveillance images of the pair at a store in Oklahoma, asking for the public’s help in finding them.
The arrest of Cummins, 50, and the recovery of the 15-year-old girl came Thursday after the cabin’s caretaker alerted authorities.
“I’m glad this is over,” the teacher told sheriff’s deputies when they took him into custody.
5 weeks of mystery
The exact path that Cummins and his student took from Tennessee to California isn’t clear, but the teacher’s next trip is: At some point, he’ll be extradited to the Volunteer State to face charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, among other counts.
Many questions remain about what happened: Where were they from the time they left Culleoka in mid-March until they were found Thursday in the tiny town of Cecilville? What were their plans? And did the student leave willingly with her teacher, who had already been warned to stay away from her?
Accusations of inappropriate contact
Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas disappeared March 13, about two months after another student reported seeing the two kissing in his classroom. The school learned about the incident the following day, January 24, but the girl’s father didn’t find out until a week later when the Maury County Sheriff’s Department notified him, his attorney said. Meanwhile, his daughter said she was still in Cummins’ class.
“If it is true that contact between this student and Mr. Cummins has continued in light of these allegations, I can tell you that my client will use whatever legal means are at his disposal, including filing suit, to assist Maury County Schools in protecting (his daughter) from Mr. Cummins,” Anthony Thomas’ attorney, Jason Whatley, wrote in a letter to the school February 6.
The school district said in a February 8 internal memo, provided to CNN by Whatley, that the student had been removed from Cummins’ forensics class and that assertions she remained in his class were false.
Cummins was suspended from his job February 6, and he was fired more than a month later — the day after he disappeared with his student.
Authorities believe the teacher groomed Elizabeth for nearly a year. He told her stories about what he said was his past as a CIA and FBI agent flush with cash, her father said.
“He convinced her that he had been a secret agent and … that he had all kinds of money,” her father told HLN. “It was clear that he had really put a lot of notions into her head.”
‘She did expect to be home by dinner’
For her part, Elizabeth said that, like many students, she looked to Cummins as a counselor. She had been to church with him, she said. According to the report about the incident in his classroom, he never made her feel uncomfortable, and he never touched her, except for the occasional fist bump. He also grabbed her hands one time to calm her down, she said.
On the morning of March 13, a friend dropped her off at a restaurant in Columbia, near Culleoka. Around the same time, surveillance footage showed Cummins pumping gas nearby, according to authorities.
Elizabeth told a sibling she was going somewhere that day but to call police if she hadn’t returned by 6 p.m., her brother, James Thomas, told HLN last month.
“She didn’t think she was going to be gone that long, I guess, because she did expect to be home by dinner that night,” he said.
Plans for a trip
It appears Cummins, at least, had been planning to leave with his student for some time. According to a criminal complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Tennessee, the teacher filled two prescriptions for Cialis shortly before March 13. The drug is used to treat erectile dysfunction and enhance sexual performance. He also applied for and received a $4,500 loan — which he told his wife they needed because he no longer had a job.
On the day he left, he told his wife, Jill, that he needed to borrow her Nissan Rogue to go on a job interview. When she got home that day, she found a note saying he was leaving for a while to “clear his head” and she shouldn’t call police. She also discovered that the loan money, two handguns, clothes and toiletry items were missing.
Cummins did some research online about the SUV to see if law enforcement could track certain features, police said. He also looked at websites concerning teen marriage, authorities told HLN last month.
“That is an issue that we have some major concerns of because it might potentially speak to his intentions for her,” Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman Josh DeVine said March 22.
Investigators also discovered that Cummins booked rooms — in his own name — at Super 8 motels in Oklahoma City and in Guymon, Oklahoma, in March.
Authorities have surveillance video from a Walmart in Oklahoma City from March 15 showing the pair, and images of Cummins purchasing women’s razors, chocolates and a “commonly used lubricant for sexual intercourse,” according to the criminal complaint.
Jill Cummins has filed for divorce since her husband disappeared.
How authorities found them
After 39 days on the run, Cummins and his student ended up in Northern California, where they apparently tried to get into a commune near Cecilville, according to the man who said he tipped police off to their presence. Griffin Barry told CNN affiliate KRCR-TV that Cummins said he was 44 and that his “wife” was 22.
“The first time he was like, ‘We’re from Colorado. We had a house fire and lost everything.’ He said he used to be a raft outfitter, or something like that,” Barry told CNN.
He told Barry he was down to his last $10.
“And I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve had my own struggles. So (I’ll) try to help you out,'” Barry said.
He said he offered Cummins work — moving rocks — and a place to stay: a small cabin for which Barry was the caretaker. But he said he eventually became suspicious, noting that Cummins was driving a Nissan Rogue without any license plates and that his female companion spoke little, he told KRCR.
Researching the pair, Barry saw Cummins’ picture online in an urgent Amber Alert. He called police Wednesday night, KRCR reported, and authorities asked the caretaker to help them capture the teacher.
On Thursday morning, Barry asked Cummins to come outside and help him build a rock wall on the property. When Cummins left the cabin, investigators were there to arrest him, the cabin’s owner, Monk O’Hare, told CNN. Elizabeth was right behind him, and she was taken into federal custody.
The girl alternated between being “stoic” and “emotional” — understandable, given the circumstances. Siskiyou County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Gilley said.
“It was a very traumatic experience for her. Her mood was very alternating,” Gilley said. “The two obviously have a relationship. … Her response to us and to law enforcement escalated up and down.”
Cummins was charged with one federal count of transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse, said Jack Smith, acting US attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. The charge carries a minimum of 10 years.
He also faces state charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said last month.
State law allows children older than 12 to decide whether to leave their families unless their removal or confinement “is accomplished by force, threat or fraud.”
To prove kidnapping, prosecutors will need to show the 15-year-old was unlawfully removed or had her freedom restricted.
That determination remains to be seen. But what’s important now, Elizabeth’s relatives say, is that she comes home and begins the process of healing.
“There aren’t words in the English language to describe the level of relief and elation experienced by the Thomas family,” said Whatley, the family’s attorney. “Now begins another hard chapter, but for now, we celebrate.”