After kidnapped teen Elizabeth Thomas left Tennessee with her former teacher, Tad Cummins, she started losing hope that she would see or talk to any of her family again.
“I saw it on FOX News one time in a hotel,” Elizabeth said, explaining the first time she learned the nation was searching for her.
At just 15 years old, Elizabeth left her Culleoka, Tennessee, home and fled with former health sciences teacher, Cummins, 51 at the time. Cummins abducted Elizabeth in March 2018 and 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.
Read PART ONE: ‘He said if he couldn’t have me, he’d kill himself’: Tad Cummins’ kidnap victim Elizabeth Thomas explains how she feared former teacher
Elizabeth feared Cummins, which escalated once she started traveling with him, leaving the only hometown she knew, headed west. They stayed three nights in Colorado, then headed to Utah, where Cummins started buying alcohol for her. During the majority of the trip, Cummins demanded that the teen stay inside the car or by his side with her sunglasses on and her head down.
They continued traveling through numerous states and eventually ended up in California, where Cummins had plans to either get them to Mexico or Panama.
“He wanted to go to Mexico because apparently that’s free land,” Elizabeth said. “And he wanted to go Panama because that’s where he was before on mission trips. So he got a kayak and he wanted to kayak all the way to Panama.”
Cummins, who reportedly has no previous experience or skills navigating through rough waters, purchased a man-powered kayak with plans to paddle over 3,000 nautical miles from San Diego to Panama. The incident terrified Elizabeth, who sat in the kayak with Cummins as he clumsily tried to make his way through waters he was unfamiliar with.
“The waves were getting really bad to where to like, once I hit the bottom of the boat, the boat would nearly go under. Whichever way you tried to go it would pull you the other direction. I was terrified.”
After the water nearly killed the pair, Cummins decided on a new destination. According to Elizabeth, he announced they were going to a California commune. They ended up at the Black Bear commune where Cummins reportedly thought no one would recognize them.
The commune is hidden deep inside the woods of northern California with no televisions, computers, radios, tablets, or phones. Hardly any contact exists with the outside world and Cummins purportedly felt it would be the safest place to hide. However, the residents at the commune didn’t take well to Cummins, who introduced himself as “John,” and introduced Elizabeth as “Joanna.”
A resident who goes by the “April Showers” said others at the commune became uncomfortable after Cummins lost his temper.
“He brought that into our secret space,” Showers said. “Terrible behavior and acting on wrong impulse and a perverted instinct I would say.”
Within days, Elizabeth and Cummins were asked to leave the commune after the kidnapper showed his true colors.
“He took out knife and dropped it on the ground and started screaming at April,” Elizabeth explained. “I thought this was going to be it and he’s gonna shoot somebody.”
Cummins then took Elizabeth to a nearby village, where a Good Samaritan allowed them to live in a tiny bare-bones cabin in exchange for work. The same Good Samaritan later called police and turned Cummins in. Cummins again lied about who he was told the man who helped him that his “Colorado home” had caught on fire.
Elizabeth said the small cabin had nothing in it, not even insulation to help it warm inside at night. She often went to bed freezing, with no way to keep warm.
The Good Samaritan, who identified himself as Griffin Barry, thought it odd that Elizabeth, who called herself “Joanna,” hardly spoke to him and kept her head down the majority of her time there. Barry knew something didn’t seem quite right, and his suspicions were confirmed when he saw a flyer with Cummins’ face on it, wanted for kidnapping.
Barry quickly called police. Within a day, Cummins had been arrested.
Timeline of Events
January 23: A 12-year-old student sees Tad Cummins give Elizabeth Thomas a “romantic peck” on the lips in his classroom at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee.
January 30: After the student reported the kissing incident, a school resource officer contacts the Maury County Sheriff’s office to report the inappropriate contact between the teacher and the 15-year-old student.
Detectives interview the witness student at the school, who tells officers that they confronted Tad Cummins with another student before reporting the incident to school officials.
The student related that Cummins rambled on and on about how much he loved his wife but indicated that [Thomas] sometimes went to church with him and his wife and that [Thomas] had a troubled past.
January 31: The detectives have been in contact with Elizabeth Thomas’s father Anthony; together they are able to access messages from Elizabeth’s phone. The records show “brief contact” between the student and the teacher on January 31.
Detectives interview Elizabeth Thomas, who admits that she was in Cummins’s classroom on January 23 but denies a kiss took place.
(Thomas) indicated Cummins may have been consoling her when the student walked in. (Thomas) advised that Cummins possibly held both of her hands around the wrist area and may have been close to her face at the time, telling her she needed to calm down.
February 1: Cummins appears at the Maury County Sheriff’s office for a non-custodial interview. He denies kissing Thomas, and describes their relationship as “father-daughter” in nature.
February 3: Elizabeth Thomas is in Cummins’s classroom for approximately 30 minutes, in violation of an order for Cummins to avoid contact with her.
February 6: Cummins is suspended from the school because of his prohibited contact with Thomas.
On a subsequent and unspecified date, Cummins’s school-issued laptop and his iPad are turned over to detectives. Cummins was reluctant to turn over the iPad.
March 10: Tad Cummins refills a prescription for Cialis, a performance-enhancing drug that treats sexual dysfunction.
March 13: A friend of Thomas’s drops her off at Shoney’s restaurant in Columbia, Tennessee, at approximately 8 a.m. The same morning, Cummins tells his wife he needs to borrow her Nissan Rogue for a job interview. Further investigation reveals that no such interview was scheduled.
Tad’s wife Jill Cummins finds a note from her husband on the evening of March 13, claiming that he was going out of town to either Virginia Beach of the Washington, D.C. area to “clear his head.” He promises to return and asks her not to contact police.
At approximately 10:30 p.m., Anthony Thomas calls the Maury County Sheriff’s Department to report Elizabeth missing, and says he is concerned she is with Cummins.
March 14: Jill Cummins contacts the Maury County Sheriff’s Office to report that her husband did not come home the night before. She says that he took out a $4,500 loan a week before, and tells police that two guns, toiletries, and clothes are missing from the home, along with the money from the loan.
March 15-16: Cummins and Thomas book a room at a Super 8 Motel in Oklahoma City. A hotel employee does not report this sighting to authorities until March 29. The employee tells police that Cummins asked for directions to a nearby Walmart. A review of surveillance camera footage conducted on March 30 confirms Cummins and Thomas were at the Walmart location on March 15.
March 16-17: An employee at the Wyndham Hotels and Resorts in Guymon, Oklahoma, reported to police on April 1 that Cummins had booked a hotel room there, with only one bed, for the night of March 16.
Follow-up investigation found that Cummins and Thomas had visited a Guymon Walmart location on March 16. They appeared on store surveillance camera footage, and purchased bought women’s razors, cheese cubes, chocolate, and KY jelly with cash.
April 20: Investigators locate Cummins and Elizabeth in Siskiyou County, California, after a caretaker reported on April 19 that they were staying in a remote cabin using fake names. Cummins was arrested without incident and booked into a California jail. Based on previous evidence, investigators believed that he was carrying out a sexual relationship with Elizabeth.
In turn, Cummins was charged with a federal offense of “transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. He is awaiting extradition to Tennessee.
April 21: Elizabeth Thomas is reunited with her family.
[Feature Photo: Elizabeth Thomas via ABC, “20/20”]