Missing Tennessee student: From kissing allegation to manhunt
A nationwide manhunt continues for an armed Culleoka, Tennessee, teacher accused of kidnapping a 15-year-old student just weeks after he was investigated for kissing her in his classroom, police say.
Tad Cummins and Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas have been missing since March 13.
Here’s a timeline of what led up to and has transpired during the manhunt:
July 6, 2011
Cummins applies for a job with Maury County Public Schools. He had spent the previous four years working as a respiratory therapist at medical services companies in Tennessee.
On his resume, the Mount Pleasant native says he graduated magna cum laude from Columbia State Community College in 1993 with an associate of applied science degree in respiratory care technologies. His GPA was 3.57, he says.
Under “achievements,” he says he has been a percussionist since the late 1970s and has been in several bands. He also holds copyrights for 65 songs, most of which he wrote “with my guitar, piano, or behind my congas,” he writes.
The website for one of his bands, Cry for Holiness!, says the group is made up of “5 Dads that God brought together as one collective vessel to use the musical talents He gave us to glorify His precious name and reconcile His children to Him!”
“I am a Christian,” he continues on his resume, before reeling off the many capacities in which he’d served at his Columbia church — among them, teen Sunday school teacher and “adult chaperone for youth activities.”
He volunteered in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and in the Panamanian rainforest. He earned a black belt in Kenpo Karate in 1999, he says.
July 27, 2011
Maury County Public Schools hires Cummins for a health sciences position at Culleoka Unit School, which houses kindergarten through 12th grade, after he received strong marks during the interview two days earlier.
May 15, 2014
Cummins is notified that he has been “renewed” as a teacher.
May 15, 2015
He receives another renewal notice.
August 1, 2016
Culleoka Unit School begins the school year. Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Thomas begins freshman year, during which she will take a forensics class with Cummins.
According to an internal school investigation report, “Student 1” says she walks into Cummins’ classroom to retrieve her book bag and witnesses Cummins kissing Elizabeth.
“It wasn’t like a make-out kiss, just a peck on the lips,” the middle school student says when she reports it to the administration.
Uncomfortable, she leaves the room and finds “Student 3,” a high schooler, to whom she relays what she just saw. The high schooler will later describe Student 1 as “freaked out” by the incident, according to the report.
“Student 1” wants to confront Cummins, 50, so she brings “Student 2,” another middle schooler, to his classroom, the report says.
“Mr. Cummins commented to both Student 1 and Student 2 that he is a father figure to Beth. He commented he saw her as a close and best friend. He also revealed … that Beth had been through a lot and had suffered an abusive home life,” according to the report.
Not satisfied, “Student 1” decides to go to the administration, the report says.
The school district begins an investigation. Over several days, Elizabeth, Cummins and an unidentified teacher are interviewed, according to the investigative report.
Elizabeth says she goes to Cummins’ classroom when she is upset or anxious. She considers him a friend and he knows how to calm her down. Other students feel the same about him, she says. She denies that they’ve ever kissed and says that she has been to church with him and his wife. The only times Cummins touches her, she says, is when he gives her the occasional fist bump. One time, he grabbed her hands to calm her down, she says.
Cummins, too, denies the allegation of “Student 1.” He calls Elizabeth “a really good friend” and concurs that they’ve been to church together and that she comes to him when she needs someone to calm her down.
“He loves his wife and has never cheated on his wife and would never do anything to jeopardize his marriage,” he says, according to the report.
“Teacher 1” tells school investigators that she sees Elizabeth in Cummins’ classroom “a lot,” during the day and before and after school. The door is always open, and no inappropriate behavior was ever witnessed, the teacher says. The teacher says, however, that Elizabeth recently moved her desk near Cummins’ desk, and the teacher shares the sentiment that “Cummins should have a better boundary between his role as the student’s teacher and the student’s friend.”
Elizabeth is removed from Cummins’ class, according to the school district.
The kissing allegation can’t be confirmed, the investigation concludes. Still, investigators recommend several actions, including removing Elizabeth from Cummins’ class; instructing Elizabeth to present any anxiety issues to a guidance counselor; monitoring Cummins’ class to ensure students are not there when they aren’t supposed to be; and reprimanding Cummins “in regards to his duty to uphold his professional responsibility and behavior as a teacher to all students.”
Culleoka Unit School Principal Penny Love tells Cummins not to allow Elizabeth into his classroom, according to an official reprimand issued to the teacher. Love also tells Elizabeth to stay out of his classroom, the reprimand says.
Law enforcement informs the school district that Cummins is the subject of an investigation, according to the district. The district hands over its investigative materials.
A Maury County Sheriff’s Department detective contacts Elizabeth’s father, Anthony Thomas, and informs him of the investigation, not knowing Thomas was unaware of the kissing allegation, according to a letter from Thomas’ attorney, Jason Whatley, to schools Superintendent Chris Marczak. Thomas calls Love, “but was unable to get an answer of any kind,” the letter states.
Thomas contacts a woman in Marczak’s office who expresses concern Thomas “had been left in the dark” and says she feels Love should’ve informed him, according to Whatley’s letter. She also says the investigation remains ongoing and assures Thomas there will be no more communication between Cummins and his daughter.
After the district receives information that Elizabeth was in Cummins’ class for 33 minutes, Love issues Cummins an official reprimand for “allowing a particular student to spend an excessive amount of time in your classroom creating an unprofessional environment.”
Whatley writes to Marczak, complaining that Thomas has not heard back from the woman with whom he spoke February 1. Elizabeth told her father, according to the letter, that she continues to take a class with Cummins. The teen’s cell phone history indicates as well that she remains in contact with Cummins, the letter says.
“To make matters worse, it appears that this issue is being readily discussed by faculty members and, on at least one recent occasion, in a derogatory tone and manner about Mr. Thomas’ daughter,” the letter says.
Whatley demands a meeting with Marczak, as well as an update on the investigation, an explanation of the measures taken to keep Elizabeth and Cummins apart, a copy of Cummins’ personnel file and an order to faculty and staff that they stop discussing the matter within earshot of students.
Cummins receives a letter from Marczak informing him he has been suspended without pay, “pending an investigation.”
Amanda Hargrove, the school district’s chief of staff, sends a memo — to whom is unclear — saying that Whatley’s assertion that Elizabeth remains in Cummins’ class is false.
The memo also notes Cummins has been suspended and that Love will tell faculty and staff not to discuss the matter in front of students. Faculty was informed to tell students not to discuss it as well.
Elizabeth’s brother, James Thomas, speaks to his sister. “She didn’t act out of the ordinary,” he tells CNN days after her disappearance. It’s the last time the two would talk before she goes missing.
Cummins does online research on teen marriage, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Concerning his Nissan Rogue, Cummins researches whether any features of his vehicle can be tracked by law enforcement, the TBI said.
It’s a professional development day for teachers, so there’s no school, according to the district calendar.
Elizabeth tells a sibling that she is leaving and expects to be home by dinner, but if she’s not home by 6 p.m., to call the police. James Thomas later tells HLN.
Just before 8 a.m., a friend drops Elizabeth off at a restaurant in Columbia, about 45 miles south of Nashville. Just after 8 a.m., surveillance cameras show Cummins pumping gas nearby, according to authorities. By that afternoon, authorities suspect the two were about 80 miles away in Decatur, Alabama.
Then, they vanish.
The Maury County Sheriff’s Department enters Elizabeth as “missing” in a national law enforcement database, according to the TBI.
Elizabeth’s family releases a statement asking the public to be Elizabeth’s eyes, ears and voice and to notify law enforcement if anyone sees her.
District Attorney Brent Cooper confirms Cummins has been charged with sexual contact with a minor, stemming from “an alleged sexual interaction” at school, the TBI says.
The TBI issues an Amber Alert. The school district fires Cummins, according to the TBI.
The TBI updates its Amber Alert to say that it has received 80 leads, none credible, and it has determined that Cummins took out a $4,500 title loan on a personal vehicle several days before his disappearance.
“Investigative efforts have revealed a troubling pattern of behavior by Tad Cummins, suggesting the 50-year-old may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her,” the TBI says in another update.
It further reports pursuing 120 leads, none credible.
The TBI adds Cummins to the state’s most-wanted list and he faces an additional charge of aggravated kidnapping, based on information that he has two handguns with him. The agency announces a $1,000 reward for information leading to Cummins’ arrest.
Cummins’ wife makes a tearful plea for her husband to bring Elizabeth home and turn himself in.
“Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are,” Jill Cummins says during a news conference. “We can help you get through this. No matter how far you’ve gone or what is happening right now, God’s grace is sufficient for you and he wants you to come home.”
Approximately 250 tips from 24 states have led authorities nowhere, the TBI says. The low number of tips and Cummins’ “limited resources” led investigators to believe he may be keeping Elizabeth out of public view.
“He potentially may have them sleeping in the vehicle or Cummins may have driven them far away from Tennessee to a rural community. Having now been on the run for more than five days, Cummins may have taken her, frankly, anywhere,” the agency says.
Investigators express concern with details indicating Cummins may have planned the abduction in advance, the TBI says.
“Nothing investigators have learned about Cummins or his intentions for the young girl since issuing the AMBER Alert calms the imminent concern for Elizabeth’s well-being. In fact, it only heightens it,” the Amber Alert update says.
Whatley tells CNN that Anthony Thomas, a blue-collar guy and single father of 10, is sad, anxious and suffering from high blood pressure.
“He’s not doing well at all,” Whatley said.
The TBI says it has received 450 leads but reports a lack of confirmed sightings. The agency releases footage of Cummins shopping before Elizabeth went missing.
It asks the nation to remain vigilant, especially in rural areas, campgrounds, parks and other isolated areas. It also urges people to search large parking lots and garages.
TBI spokesman Josh DeVine issues a message directly to Elizabeth.
“She may very well not know that she’s a victim in all of this,” he says. “So our message to her tonight, you are a victim. You’re 15 years old. He’s 50. We are going to do everything we can to bring you home.”
“I would want Elizabeth to know that I love her, we all miss her and we want her home. We just want to know she is safe,” James Thomas tells CNN.
Investigators are determining if Elizabeth’s remark to a sibling about calling the police on the day of her disappearance are relevant to the investigation, DeVine says.
To date, the TBI reports, it’s received more than 650 leads.
Investigators say that before the pair disappeared, they exchanged romantic missives using the drafts folder of Cummins’ school email account, CNN affiliate WAAY reported. In one email, Cummins wrote, “I saw you standing next to your backpack this morning’ and makes a reference to a body part of hers and how nice that looked,” Detective Marcus Albright of the Maury County Sheriff’s Department told the station.
Out of more than 1,100 tips, there have been no credible sightings, though 167 remain under investigation, DeVine tells reporters.
Separately, the prosecutor in the case tells CNN that Tennessee’s kidnapping law is so toothless when it comes to girls Elizabeth’s age that it’s possible Cummins could be found not guilty of kidnapping if Elizabeth says she left with him on her own accord. He says he plans to discuss with lawmakers the prospect of strengthening the law.