The Tennessee girl who vanished earlier this year with former teacher Tad Cummins said that as she feared for her life while with him, the public perception of her became skewed, as people reportedly began forming opinions before truly understanding what happened.
“[People] think they know what happened,” Elizabeth Thomas said in an exclusive interview with “20/20″ correspondent, Eva Pilgrim. “They think that I’m a whore. They think that I like old men and that’s not the case.”
Elizabeth was just 15 when she left her home in Culleoka, Tennessee, with former health sciences teacher, Tad Cummins, 51 at the time. Cummins reportedly drove across state lines with the teen, which sparked a nationwide manhunt and an AMBER Alert. A little over a month later, authorities found the pair in a small shack in a secluded, wooded area in northern California.
The teen’s story gained national attention, but little details were known publicly, until now, about what transpired between the two that prompted Elizabeth to leave her hometown with a man old enough to be her father.
“He made me feel like I didn’t have anyone else, and no one really cared about me like he did,” Elizabeth explained.
Cummins met Elizabeth while teaching at the Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, where the teen attended school. Elizabeth said she had been home schooled most of her life, but once she was removed from her mother’s care after reports of child neglect and abuse, she entered the public school system, where Cummins initially became a mentor.
Elizabeth said she was depressed and lonely after the abuse endured by her mother and wanted to seek mental health help, but Cummins persuaded her not to, telling her it would “change” her.
“Whenever I tried to seek mental help, he told me no,” Thomas said. “I was feeling real low, and I was wanting to get on anti-depressants and try to go to a therapist. And he told me no and not to do it ‘cause it’d change who I was.”
As time progressed, Cummins made it clear he wanted a romantic relationship, according to Elizabeth. It started by the former teacher telling her she “would look nice naked,” to him kissing her unexpectedly.
Authorities eventually intervened after reports of inappropriate behavior between the two at school, but Elizabeth said school administrators still allowed her to go on class field trips with Cummins while the investigation was ongoing.
Cummins denied any form of inappropriate actions when questioned by police, stating he was a father figure to the teen. When Cummins faced suspension during the investigation, Elizabeth said other kids in the school started bullying her, calling her demeaning names for “ruining” Cummins’ life. She said teachers also started calling her names when they became aware of the situation.
“A lot of them were made aware, and they also did a lot of the teasing and a lot of the name calling.”
During Cummins’ suspension, he reportedly insisted on keeping in contact with Elizabeth. She said if she wasn’t active on social media, he threatened to kill any boy she was with.
“I had to keep in communication with him while he was suspended. And any time that I wouldn’t post for a few hours, he would go crazy and say that I was cheating on him and saying if he found out that I was with another boy, he’d kill them.”
The threats steadily increased, according to Elizabeth, who said she felt trapped, bullied, and controlled by Cummins. Elizabeth also said she was afraid of Cummins, who told her that he had killed people previously.
“So he started calling my phone … sometimes he’d be threatening to kill himself or ending someone else’s life if I didn’t go. He said if he couldn’t have me, he’d kill himself. Any time he threatened himself, he’d threaten my family……I felt really bad about leaving, and I didn’t want to leave, but I knew if I didn’t, something would happen.”
Elizabeth agreed to meet Cummins at a local restaurant in March 2017, but when he didn’t arrive on time, she left the bag at the restaurant with a note inside, giving a tip that she hoped police would find. Cummins eventually arrived and picked her up, then headed west toward California.
“I just wanted the police to be called because I knew once I got in that car, I wasn’t getting out.”
As the pair departed, Elizabeth noticed a gun in the middle console of Cummins’ car. Frightened, she obeyed whatever he demanded, including throwing her cellphone off of a bridge.
“As soon as we went to go leave, he set a gun in the middle console, and I knew that I wasn’t getting out of the car. He made me throw my phone off a bridge and his phone as well, that way the police couldn’t track us. And then he disconnected the GPS by a screwdriver in the glove compartment, and he broke off the front, and then he unhooked the radio and unhooked the GPS.”
Elizabeth said Cummins kept a careful eye on her throughout the journey, never letting her out of his view. They stayed in hotels together, which made Elizabeth feel “dirty.”
“At the hotels, I would shower every morning because I felt dirty and disgusting every morning. And he didn’t help at all…“The things he would make you do,” Thomas said. “It wouldn’t help the way that I was feeling. And I’d just try to shower to get away from him, but sometimes he wouldn’t let me shower alone ’cause I had to be in the same space with him at the exact same time.”
Eventually, Cummins began controlling how Elizabeth dressed and what she ate, purportedly telling her he liked “skinny girls” while pushing her to drink alcohol.
In the upcoming “20/20” episode, Elizabeth explains what happened after Cummins drove state to state until they reached a small commune, the moment she was rescued by authorities, and how she’s managing to put the piece of her life back together.
The full interview with Elizabeth airs on “20/20” on Friday, September 21, at 10 p.m. EST on ABC.
[Feature Photo: Elizabeth Thomas via ABC, “20/20”]