Scandals are big news in small places like Columbia in Maury County, Tennessee. With just 35,000 inhabitants, word travels fast in this city. But when a 15-year-old girl completely disappeared off the radar, fears for her safety culminated in an intensive manhunt involving law enforcement officers from all over the country.
The girl in question was one Elizabeth Thomas. The teen was enrolled at Culleoka Unit School when she vanished on the morning of March 13, 2017. A friend had left her at Shoney’s – a restaurant franchise common throughout the state. But on this occasion, Thomas had brought multiple pieces of luggage with her.
Why? Because as it transpired, the student had arranged to meet Tad Cummins – a 50-year-old science teacher at her school. And shortly after her friend had left her at the restaurant, the pair had vanished. What’s more, when investigators were alerted that the teenager was missing, it transpired that her relationship with Cummins had been more than merely that of student and teacher.
Indeed, a pupil at the school had even reported seeing Cummins kissing Thomas in a classroom several weeks prior, on January 23, 2017. However, Thomas’ family attorney, Jason Whatley, said that the school had still not suspended Cummins until he had sent a letter outlining the girl’s parents’ concerns – a full two weeks later.
At any rate, on the morning of March 13, Elizabeth had woken up her older sister Sarah by shaking her in her bed. “She said, ‘I’m going to be gone,’” Sarah told People magazine. “She had a strange edge to her voice and said, ‘I’m going to get back at 6 tonight. If I’m not back by 6, call the police and come find me.’”
On the same day, Cummins had borrowed his wife’s red Nissan Rogue on the pretext of attending a job interview. But in fact, the teacher had been planning to flee Columbia with his student. And among his luggage was a loan of several thousand dollars, two handguns, women’s hair dye and a recently replenished prescription for Cialis – an erectile dysfunction medication.
With the help of surveillance footage and eye-witness accounts, police determined that the pair had traveled cross-country, staying in a string of cheap motels on the way. They had also shopped at Walmart, picking up sundry items such as confectionery, female razors and KY Jelly. Meanwhile, back in Columbia, Cummins’ wife filed for divorce.
Traveling under the aliases of “John” and “Joanna,” the couple wound up at a campsite in Cecilville, California. There, they helped build a fire pit in exchange for a few nights’ shelter inside a rustic cabin. The site’s caretaker, 29-year-old Griffin Barry, later told People that he had found their behavior slightly strange. In particular, he recalled that the young girl wouldn’t even look him in the eye.
Nonetheless, Barry took pity on the couple, who claimed to have lost their home and belongings in a house fire. “I put some gas in his car and gave him $40 dollars,” he told WKRN, adding that he also gave the pair directions to a nearby commune. “[I] said if it doesn’t work come back I’ll feed you, you know what I mean?’”
And so Cummins and Thomas departed for Black Bear Ranch – a nearby anarchist collective where clothing is optional. Set up in 1968, the commune is a long-running favorite with itinerant artists, musicians, activists and assorted misfits. As it happened, however, Cummins and Thomas proved too eccentric even for this lot.
“When they showed up they seemed really scared and apprehensive, [and] his [Cummins’] hands were shaking,” resident April Showers told the Daily Mail in April 2017. “They were always attached to each other, they seemed genuinely in love, like lovers. It was weird to watch because he’s a lot older and she’s younger.”
“Joanna [Thomas] would stand in front of him with her arms in the air and say, ‘up, up, up,’ like she was a small child asking to be lifted, and he’d smile and lift her up,” Showers continued. “It was so weird, like a father picking up his daughter. They would also be whispering to each other all the time; we’d be all talking at the table and they would be whispering secrets.”
Cummins and Thomas remained at the commune for around two weeks, reportedly spending much of their time on a dirty mattress in an attic. Yet not only did the pair refuse to integrate, but they also avoided doing communal chores. “They seemed lazy,” one resident called Sophia told the Daily Mail. “They didn’t want to do anything.”
So, the residents finally decided that the pair couldn’t stay, and Thomas, apparently offended, got upset. “You’re prejudiced towards us because we’re hetero white Christians!” he reportedly said. And while it’s true that their conservative religious views made them a poor fit for a nudist commune, ultimately they were considered idle and anti-social.
Consequently, Thomas and Cummins slinked back to the campsite where they’d found shelter just two weeks prior. However, this time, Griffin figured out the pair’s real identity after talking to a neighbor who showed him a “missing person” photo. And once he realized who the campers actually were, he immediately contacted the police.
Prosecutors have since alleged that Cummins had planned to smuggle Thomas into Mexico. “In furtherance of this plan,” they wrote in a court document, “the defendant procured a small watercraft and conducted a test run to cross into Mexico across the water from San Diego.” What’s more, they also claimed that Cummins had intended to travel further south, into Central America.
Prosecutors additionally claimed that Cummins had engaged in “a daring cat-and-mouse run from law enforcement in order to further his own prurient desires.” Meanwhile, a lawyer representing the Thomas family has described his actions as “classic grooming and manipulation.” It’s a claim reiterated by Thomas’ sister, too, who told People that Elizabeth “probably idolized [him].”
As of June 2017, Cummins is deemed a flight risk and is being detained by federal authorities. A trial date has been set for July 25, and if convicted, Cummins faces a life sentence. However, if he wishes to avoid going to court, he has until July 21 to accept a plea deal.
Whatever the outcome, though, Cummins has clearly left a trail of emotional damage in his wake. Among his victims is, of course, his estranged wife, who received a call from her wayward husband three days after his arrest.
Jill told Inside Edition that her husband had admitted that he had slept with the teenager and now begged his wife’s forgiveness, saying “I’m sorry” over and over. “I love you,” he told her. Jill, however, did not say “I love you, too.”