Culleoka Unit School teacher Tad Cummins spent months harassing and assaulting Elizabeth Thomas before he kidnapped her and drove her to California to make her his "wife."
On March 13, 2017, 15-year-old high school student Elizabeth Thomas disappeared. After an Amber Alert and a 38-day search, she was found in northern California, where she was being held by a 50-year-old married father of two named Tad Cummins, her former health teacher at Culleoka Unit School in Tennessee.
While Cummins’ kidnapping of Thomas was already reprehensible, the situation was made all the more tragic when Thomas revealed that she had initially viewed Cummins as a mentor and protective figure — only for him to then abuse that connection and “groom” the teenager for months prior to her disappearance. Cummins even tried to twist his actions in court, claiming that Thomas had wanted to run away and he was concerned about her going out on her own, so he joined her.
In truth, however, Tad Cummins had been lusting after his young student. Just before the kidnapping, he was suspended from his position as a teacher after another student saw him kissing Thomas on school grounds.
Her family claimed that he had spent months pressuring Thomas into spending time with him. Cummins ultimately wound up pleading guilty to federal counts of transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of engaging in criminal sexual conduct — perhaps confirming what his true intentions had been.
How Tad Cummins Groomed And Manipulated Elizabeth Thomas
On the morning of March 13, 2017, Tad Cummins left a note for his wife in which he wrote that he was leaving to “think.” He also asked her not to call the police.
Later that same evening, Anthony Thomas reported his daughter missing. What followed was a 38-day manhunt for Cummins that led police to a remote cabin in Cecilville, California — a small, four-walled shack where Cummins had holed up in with his underage victim.
Despite Cummins’ initial claims during police interviews that he “never touched another woman” in his 31 years of marriage, investigators uncovered a series of shocking revelations after Cummins’ arrest.
According to The Tennessean, Cummins first set his sights on Thomas while she was enrolled in his health class.
Tad Cummins was described as a masterfully manipulative predator, pressuring Thomas to go out with him and threatening her with repercussions at school if she refused. A petition filed by Thomas’ father explained that the teen girl told friends she was scared of Cummins and felt in over her head.
She had just recently begun making the transition from homeschooling to public school. Thomas also said that her mother had abused her growing up, and perhaps that is why she initially felt such a strong connection to Cummins.
“He made me feel like I didn’t have anyone else, and no one really cared about me like he did,” she recalled to ABC’s 20/20. “Whenever I tried to seek mental help, he told me no. I was feeling real low… and he told me no and not to do it ’cause it’d change who I was.”
Thomas was given a seat near Cummins’ desk in his class. Other students also reported seeing him initiate physical contact with her during school hours, including rubbing her shoulders and back.
At one point, when she was alone in the classroom with her, he told her, “You’d look pretty nice naked.”
Then, when a student saw Cummins kiss Thomas at school, it took a week before the teacher was suspended. During that week, he was the chaperone for a field trip Thomas went on.
He reportedly also picked Thomas up from her home and took her out to meals, threatening her with repercussions at school if she refused.
Even after he was suspended, he continued to pursue Thomas, showing up at her after-school job. According to court papers, she would often hide from him and ask her coworkers to lie and say she wasn’t at work.
“He said if he couldn’t have me, he’d kill himself,” Thomas recalled. “Any time he threatened himself, he’d threaten my family.”
But Thomas reportedly felt guilty about Tad Cummins’ suspension and equally worried that he would find a way to punish her for it.
In a way, she was right, as Cummins ultimately showed up one day in his wife’s Nissan Rogue and told Thomas to get in. He convinced her to run away with him and, as a silent threat, placed a gun on the console.
“He threatened my family,” Thomas later said. “My little sister was there and my whole family was there and if I didn’t go something bad would happen to them… I knew once I got in that car, I wasn’t getting out.”
The Kidnapping Of Elizabeth Thomas
Tad Cummins wanted to be sure that he wouldn’t get caught. After he took Thomas away with him, he made her throw her phone off a bridge, disconnected the GPS in his wife’s car, and even went as far as to unhook the radio.
Cummins drove them across nine states, renting a different hotel room each night, usually in rooms with only one bed. His control went further, though, as he even controlled what Thomas ate.
“He told me he likes skinny girls,” she said. “And I ate what he told me to ’cause if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get it at all.”
“I know he’s a bad man,” she told 20/20. “He only used me for one thing.”
Thomas also said that Tad Cummins had sexually abused her and that they had sex nearly every night while they were on the run. Cummins also admitted to this during an interview with the FBI.
Cummins used his own name when booking hotel rooms for the two to stay in. A Walmart security camera in Oklahoma captured images of the two in the store together, but for a time it seemed like their trail had gone cold. Then, another Tennessee native named Griffin Barry made a phone call that led investigators right to Cummins.
Barry had been a caretaker for the California property where the cabin that Cummins and Thomas were staying in was located. He recognized Cummins’ face from news reports and photographs and called in a tip. Authorities moved in and arrested Cummins, and Thomas was flown home to be reunited with her family.
Of course, it wasn’t easy for Thomas to put everything behind her, and the emotional damage she suffered as a result of the experience lingered for years.
Elizabeth Thomas Describes The Abuse She Faced At The Hands Of Tad Cummins
“What you did to me was unspeakable,” Thomas said to Cummins in a statement during his trial. “You saw a broken girl, who was lonely, scared and traumatized. You made her feel safe and loved because you saw what she needed and made her believe you would be her ‘protector’… All you were was a man who wanted sex… Tad Cummins is a sick, disgusting criminal.”
Two years after the abduction, when Thomas spoke with 20/20 for the first time, she detailed how the manipulation skewed her perceptions of trust and love. Other teachers at the school had teased her following Cummins’ suspension. Other students bullied her. She was a girl from a damaged home, trying to fit in like everyone else, and instead, a man she wanted to trust took advantage of her.
Cummins had repeatedly told Thomas that “the devil made” him pursue a relationship with her.
“But if that’s true, then you are the devil,” her statement continued. “Your choices were yours and yours alone. A 17-year-old girl should not have to tell a 52-year-old man this, but choices have consequences. Your choices destroyed not just my family, but also yours.”
Thomas also expressed anger at Cummins’ demeanor in court, during which he wept and appeared to show remorse for his actions.
“Where was any of that when you directed me into your classroom closet and violated me over and over again for months?” Thomas asked. “Where was any of that when you spent untold amounts of time and effort into manipulating, pressuring, and deceiving me into thinking that you were the only person who cared about me?”
Before his sentencing in court, Tad Cummins once again appeared emotional and apologetic.
“To the victim, I want you to know: I agree. This was not your fault. You were a kid. My misguided attempt to help you went sideways,” he said. “Anything I can do to give you closure, I stand ready.”
After reading about Tad Cummins crimes, read the disturbing story of Nathaniel Kibby, the New Hampshire man who kidnapped a 14-year-old girl and held her prisoner for nine months. Then, read the story of Andrey Emelyannikov, the student who took a selfie with the body of a teacher he murdered just before killing himself.