It has been over three weeks since Elizabeth Thomas disappeared from Columbia, Tennessee, with high school teacher Tad Cummins, a married grandfather more than three times her age who is now a fugitive wanted for her kidnapping.
Since the 15-year-old girl disappeared on Monday, March 13, there has only been one confirmed sighting of the pair: Surveillance cameras captured images of the teacher and the underage student at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart on March 15. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) told Crime Online that the lead agency on the investigation did not learn about the sighting until last Wednesday, a day before TBI confirmed it publicly.
As Elizabeth’s disappearance has been a top news story in recent weeks, and Cummins added to the the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, photographs of the pair, separate and together, have circulated widely in the national media. If Elizabeth and her teacher are still in the United States, why haven’t more people accurately reported seeing them?
Crime Online spoke to Megan Papesh, an assistant professor of psychology at Louisiana State University who specializes in cognitive and brain sciences, and who has been following the case. Papesh said that, particularly in western cultures, the average person should not be relied upon to accurately identify another person based on having only seen a photograph.
“People are really bad at matching photographs of faces up with people they don’t know,” Papesh said, explaining that it is much easier for people to recognize photographs of people they are familiar with in their own lives.
Even in the best conditions, like a laboratory setting, “the highest percentage of accuracy you will see is 80 percent,” Papesh said.
The researcher said that in Western cultures, where traditional dress does not involve covering the head or any part of the face, people are more attuned to external factors of a person’s appearance — hair, clothing, accessories — than internal features, like the alignment of a person’s eyes, or the distance between the nose and the mouth. This makes it easier for a person to avoid detection by altering external components of their appearance, like changing the color of their hair.
Papesh referenced a study done in the UK that tested the efficacy of including photographs on credit cards to curb fraud. The study participants were cashiers who were monitored to see if they could spot credit cards with photos of people other than those who were using the card.
“Even though they knew they were being tested, they missed about 50 percent of the fake credit cards,” Papesh said.
This does not mean that photographs are not useful in helping to locate missing people or fugitives. But the more photographs of that person that are circulated, the better the odds are of someone spotting them.
“I’ve seen multiple photographs of the victim in this case but I’ve really only seen one or two of the teacher,” Papesh said. “The more variety in the pictures that are shown to the public, the more likely people are going to be able to hone in on the core facial features that make that person who they are.”
A TBI spokesperson pointed out to Crime Online that the agency has posted several different photos of Cummins to its social media channels. Still, as Papesh noted, the same one or two photos have been circulated.
An Instagram account believed to be associated with Tad Cummins includes photographs that appear to be the teacher, though the TBI spokesperson said they could not verify the authenticity of the account or the photos.