On March 14, 2017, an Amber Alert was issued for 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas, who had gone missing in Tennessee. After 38 days, she was located in a secluded cabin in Cecilville, California, along with her teacher, Tad Cummins.

What happened?

The Life at Home

Mary Catherine ‘Elizabeth’ Thomas was born May 17, 2001, to Kimberly A. Thomas and Anthony E. Thomas, in Columbia, Tennessee. Elizabeth is one of ten children, all of whom were homeschooled by Kimberly, while Anthony spent long hours working for a pest control company.

According to five of the Thomas’ children, Kimberly started abusing them around November 2014, causing them to report their mother to Child Protective Services (CPS). Court documents revealed disturbing details, including allegations of Kimberly physically as*saulting her children to the point of bleeding. One specific incident involved Kimberly slamming Elizabeth’s head against a washing machine. There were also claims that Kimberly threw Elizabeth down the basement stairs, locked her inside, hurled a chair at another daughter, instructed two children to undress in front of others, and left one daughter unconscious after reportedly striking her with a wooden board. Additionally, another child was said to have been hit in the head after using her brother’s EpiPen.

Following these reports, Kimberly was removed from the Thomas home, and she was prohibited from having any contact with her children. Anthony claimed to not have known about the abuse.

Elizabeth’s parents, Kimberly and Anthony Thomas | Photo Credit: DailyMail and CNN

In August 2015, Elizabeth enrolled in Culleoka Unit School (CUS), embarking on her first venture into a public high school at the age of 14. The transition to this new educational setting posed difficulties, exacerbated by bullying from fellow students who targeted Elizabeth based on aspects of her home life.

In November 2015, upon learning about the abuse his children were enduring, Anthony decided to separate from Kimberly and gained full custody of their children.

On February 1st, 2016, Kimberly Thomas was arrested and charged with four counts of misdemeanor child abuse and neglect, and one count of felony child abuse and neglect of a child 8 years old or younger. She posted bail on the same day.

The Grooming

Tad Cummins started teaching health sciences at Culleoka Unit School in 2011. He gained a reputation as a friendly and laid-back instructor, with a classroom that lacked a strict structure. Students were permitted to address him by his first name, frequently used his room as a meeting place during lunch breaks, and even took naps on a hospital bed located within the classroom. Additionally, Tad shared with students that he had prior experience working for the FBI, CIA, and special forces before transitioning to teaching. It is worth noting, however, that there are no records verifying the accuracy of these claims.

Upon Elizabeth’s enrollment at Culleoka Unit School, administrators and teachers were informed about her challenging home situation. Tad Cummins, aware of Elizabeth’s circumstances, began counseling her. He encouraged her to have lunch in his classroom, sit near his desk during class, and even take naps on the aforementioned hospital bed. Tad, under the guise of counseling, arranged for Elizabeth to leave other classes for sessions with him.

Furthermore, Tad started integrating Elizabeth into his personal life, introducing her to his wife, Jill Cummins. The three would attend their church’s Sunday service together. Jill, describing her relationship with the 15-year-old, regarded Elizabeth as “a third daughter.”

As Elizabeth was starting to feel safe and understood by Tad, he began to take their student-teacher relationship to an inappropriate level, telling her at one point during the fall 2016 semester, that she “would look great naked”. During the following weeks, Tad invited Elizabeth to his classroom where he kissed and fondled her, and pressured her to perform oral se*x on him.

As Elizabeth and Tad’s relationship developed, CUS students and faculty started noticing the extensive time Elizabeth spent in Tad’s classroom. Court records reveal that one student felt so uneasy about their connection that they formally requested to be transferred out of Tad’s class. As rumors of their relationship circulated within the school, Elizabeth found herself subjected to ridicule from both students and teachers. Interestingly, many perceived Cummins as a victim in the situation.

On January 23, 2017, a young student observed Elizabeth and Tad kissing in his classroom. The student, along with two friends, reported the incident, leading to a school district investigation. Neither Elizabeth’s father nor law enforcement were notified about the incident or the ongoing investigation. Both Elizabeth and Tad denied the allegations, asserting to school administrators that their relationship was purely one of mentorship and friendship.

On January 27, 2017, during a school field trip, Tad allegedly propositioned Elizabeth for s*ex, though she refused. Three days later, the Maury County School District concluded their investigation, yielding no conclusive results. Despite this, Elizabeth was removed from Tad’s classroom and restricted from any further contact with him.

On January 31, 2017, the Maury County Sheriff’s Office informed Anthony Cummins about the kissing incident and the subsequent criminal investigation involving Tad Cummins. Despite being prohibited from any contact, Elizabeth was observed in Tad’s classroom four days later, leading school administrators to suspend Tad from his job. Despite the suspension, Tad continued to reach out to Elizabeth through texts and phone calls.

According to one of Elizabeth’s sisters, Sarah, Tad would appear at Elizabeth’s workplace uninvited. Sarah mentioned in interviews that Elizabeth “would go and tell people to inform him she wasn’t there, and she would go and hide until he left.”

The Ki*dnapping

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), Tad spent the next few weeks preparing for the ki*dnapping. Records revealed that on March 5, 2017, he conducted research on ‘teen marriage’ and obtained a $4,500 loan the following day. On March 10, 2017, Tad reportedly investigated whether the features of his 2015 Nissan Rogue could be tracked by law enforcement.

Two days later, on March 12, 2017, Tad allegedly refilled his Cialis prescription, purchased hair dye, along with “products that can be used in a s*exual manner.” Cialis is a prescription tablet commonly prescribed for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. It can be taken either as a low daily dose or as a higher-dose “on-demand” medication (Roland, 2023).

On the morning of March 13, 2017, Elizabeth prepared to leave for her shift at the local Shoney’s restaurant. Before leaving, she confided in one of her sisters, saying, “if I’m not back by 6 pm, call the police.” She was then dropped off at her workplace at around 7:30 am by a friend.

Meanwhile, Tad left a note for his wife Jill, stating that he was leaving to “clear my head of all of this crap.” He took both of his guns and was then seen refueling at a nearby gas station before encountering Elizabeth at approximately 8:30 am. In an interview with ABC News, Elizabeth disclosed that he used threats of suicide to coerce her into leaving with him. Later that day, Elizabeth’s family reported her missing, emphasizing that she had left behind crucial life-saving items such as EpiPens and allergy medication.

On the same day, the pair was sighted in Decatur, Alabama.

The following day, March 14, 2017, a statewide Amber Alert was issued, and Tad was officially terminated from his job at CUS.

On March 15, 2017, Tad and Elizabeth were captured on surveillance footage at a Walmart in Oklahoma City, OK, where Tad rented a room at a nearby Motel 8. The following day, the FBI officially joined the efforts in the search for Elizabeth and Tad.

On March 16, 2017, Jill Cummins, Tad’s wife of 31 years, made a public statement, urging him to “do the right thing.” District Attorney Brent Cooper, who had known Tad since childhood, appealed for him to surrender. Subsequently, Tad Cummins was added to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s (TBI) Top 10 Most Wanted list.

On the same day, Tad and Elizabeth were sighted at a Walmart in Guymon, OK, where Tad allegedly bought KY Jelly lubricant.

On March 18, 2017, hundreds of people gathered for a candlelight vigil at Riverwalk Park in Columbia, TN and a week after Elizabeth’s disappearance, her brother appealed to the public to continue sharing her photos.

On March 23, 2017, the Thomas family, through their attorney, issued a public letter expressing gratitude to the community for their assistance and support in locating Elizabeth and ensuring her safe return home.

On March 24, 2017, a former co-worker of Tad’s offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. Simultaneously, investigators disclosed additional details about Elizabeth and Tad, revealing that the two had been communicating through draft emails before the ki*dnapping. Rather than exchanging emails directly, they chose to store the messages in Tad’s drafts folder within his work account and would delete the emails once they had been read.

In the days following, investigators received over 1,300 tips, including reports of Tad and Elizabeth being sighted in Memphis, Nebraska, and West Nashville. However, all of these leads proved to be not credible. Concurrently, Jill Cummins officially filed for divorce from Tad.

On April 14, 2017, a month after Elizabeth’s kid*napping, Jill Cummins, along with daughters Erica Osborne (29) and Ashlee Connor (26), spoke to ABC News, once again urging Tad to come home. Erica expressed her support for her father, stating, “I’ve already forgiven him, no matter what he did. I’m always going to be there. You don’t give up on your family.” In the same interview, Jill expressed gratitude to the public, saying, “A lot of women go through their husbands having affairs, and they don’t have the support of the nation, but I do, and that’s a blessing in this.”

On April 20, 2017, following a tip received by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) about Tad and Elizabeth being seen at a California commune, agents located them at a secluded cabin in Cecilville, California. Tad surrendered without incident and was arrested. Elizabeth was reunited with her family a day later.

On April 24, 2017, Anthony Thomas officially filed for divorce from Kimberly, citing irreconcilable differences and marital misconduct.

The Trial and Aftermath

On May 9, 2017, Tad was extradited to Tennessee, and a federal grand jury in Nashville indicted him on May 19, 2017. His trial was scheduled for September 24, 2018.

Despite Elizabeth being safe and back at home, the aftermath of the kid*napping had a profound impact on her as she encountered substantial criticism, ridicule, and derogatory remarks both online and in-person. Social media comments characterized Tad Cummins as a “fool” with “excessive testosterone for his age,” suggesting he fell into the trap of a “15-year-old Lolita.”

On January 19, 2018, Anthony Thomas initiated a federal lawsuit against Tad Cummins and the Maury County School District on behalf of Elizabeth. The lawsuit claimed that teachers and administrators at CUS were aware of Tad’s informal conduct with students and his minimal emphasis on academics. It further alleged that they were aware of the inappropriate relationship he had with Elizabeth but failed to take measures to protect her and other students.

On April 5, 2018, Tad Cummins entered a guilty plea to charges of transporting a minor across state lines with the intent to engage in criminal se*xual activities and obstruction of justice, thereby avoiding a trial.

On January 16, 2019, Tad Eric Cummins was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. During his sentencing, Elizabeth read the following victim impact statement:

Mr. Cummins, what you did to me is unspeakable. I don’t know that any words could ever accurately express how much pain I have suffered and continue to suffer because of you. When I started school, you picked me out of the crowd. I was just a kid who wanted to make friends, but you were someone who had a plan. 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.” I was at a point in my life where I needed to be protected the most And when it came down to it, that was all a part of your plan. All you were was a man who wanted s*ex, and you manipulated me and used me just for that.

You act like you care now and that you’re full of all this regret, but where was any of that before? Where was any of that when you first had me alone in your classroom and told me you wanted to see me naked? Where was any of that when you directed me into your classroom closet and violated me over and over again for months? 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? Where was any of that when I told you I was depressed and wanted to see a therapist, but you talked me out of it? Where was any of that when you convinced me to get in the car with you on March 13, 2017? Where was any of that when you se*xually ass*aulted me night after night? Where was any of that when you made me sleep without my clothes on? Where was any of that when you made the decision to keep me away from my home and my family not once, not twice, but for 38 straight days?

On June 15, 2019, Elizabeth got married to her husband Skylar.

On February 11, 2020, Elizabeth’s lawsuit against the Maury County School District was settled for $650,000.

On July 7, 2020, Tad submitted a letter to the courts, requesting release on home confinement due to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak in prisons nationwide. He highlighted severe hypertension, obesity, and gastroesophageal reflux disease as health issues classifying him as high-risk. Tad also cited a positive record of behavior, including tutoring fellow inmates and active participation in the Christian community.

However, on October 5, 2020, a judge denied Tad’s request, deeming his argument “weak.” The judge further asserted that releasing him would result in an inadequate sentence, failing to reflect the gravity of his offense, uphold respect for the law, provide just punishment, or safeguard the public from potential further crimes.

In August 2023, Lifetime premiered “Ab*ducted by My Teacher: The Elizabeth Thomas Story,” a film that explores Elizabeth’s grooming and subsequent kidnapping. The movie was produced by Elizabeth Smart, an American activist, speaker, and author who gained national attention after being a*bducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002, at the age of 14. She was held captive for nine months before being rescued. Smart has since become an advocate for child safety and victims of a*bduction and s*exual assault. She co-founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which focuses on preventing crimes against children, and she frequently speaks about her experiences to raise awareness and support for other survivors.

Tad Cummins is presently serving his sentence at FCI Oxford in Wisconsin, a low-security federal prison. His anticipated release date is scheduled for May 5, 2033. Following his release, Tad will be obligated to register as a se*x offender.

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