In a desperate attempt to start a new life, Tad Cummins — the former Tennessee teacher accused of grooming and kidnapping his 15-year-old female student — allegedly tried to paddle to Mexico from California in a kayak he purchased.
The revelations was among several from testimony given during Cummins’ appearance in federal court on Friday in Nashville on a kidnapping and sex crimes charge, a federal official tells PEOPLE.
During the 38 days the pair was missing, Cummins purchased a two-seater kayak for $1,500 in San Diego. The 50-year-old allegedly told investigators he planned to take Elizabeth Thomas to Mexico. But after testing the kayak in San Diego Bay and determining the waters to be too dangerous, Cummins took Elizabeth north to Los Angeles.
Cummins faces federal charges for allegedly knowingly transporting a minor across state lines with the intent to engage in sexual activity. He faces life in prison.
The testimony, by FBI special agent Utley Noble, gave insight into the day-to-day lives of Cummins and Elizabeth while they were missing.
Noble said that a week before they went missing on March 13, Cummins and Elizabeth allegedly met in an undisclosed restaurant’s parking lot to review their plan. Cummins, who was Elizabeth’s health sciences teacher at the Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee, had allegedly researched teen marriage, as well as mattresses that could fit in the back of his Nissan Rogue and how to dismantle his car’s GPS.
On the morning of March 13, Cummins allegedly emptied his lockbox, which included $4,500 and two handguns, and left a note for his wife saying he had gone to Virginia Beach. After allegedly picking up Elizabeth at a local Shoney’s, Cummins drove to Decaturville, Ala.
In an attempt to thwart authorities, Elizabeth and Cummins allegedly threw their phones in the Tennessee River, replaced the Nissan’s Tennessee license plate with an Alabama one —which was allegedly stolen from an abandoned car — and dismantled the Nissan’s GPS system.
They then drove to Birmingham and then to Mississippi, where they spent their first night together.
The next day, Cummins and Elizabeth travelled to northwest to Oklahoma City, where they went to a local Wal-Mart, which would eventually be discovered by authorities two weeks later through CCTV footage. The pair spent one night in Oklahoma City and another two at Super 8 motels in Oklahoma.
A few days later, at a Wal-Mart in Cortez, Colorado, Cummins allegedly purchased a tablet to watch news about the investigation, Noble said. Concerned they would be caught, Cummins and Elizabeth allegedly decided to call themselves John Castro, 40, and Joanne Castro, 24. Cummins later allegedly told investigators he chose a Spanish-sounding last name because of his plans to go to Mexico.
Continuing their trip west, the pair allegedly stopped in Utah for three or four nights, Noble testified, followed by one night in Nevada. The next day, Cummins and Elizabeth drove to San Diego and purchased the kayak.
After it became clear Cummins’ kayak could not handle the Bay’s waves, the husband and father-of-two decided against driving into Mexico out of fear of being caught. He then allegedly took Elizabeth north to a community in the Sonoran Desert informally known as “Slab City.”
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Worried for their safety, Cummins allegedly slept with his gun while they camped there. When they began to reach the last of their money, Cummins allegedly sold the kayak at a bar in Los Angeles before driving Elizabeth north to Berkley and ultimately to the remote cabins in Cecilville, where the pair would be apprehended more than a week and half later on April 20.
Statutory Rape Charges Possible
While Cummins faces local and federal charges for kidnapping Elizabeth, he also may now face statutory rape charges. During questioning, Cummins allegedly told investigators he and Elizabeth had sex most of the nights they were missing.
That comment, along with his alleged admission to his wife about having sex with the teen, may be used against him for statutory rape charges — which might be handed down soon, Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper told NewsChannel 5.
When the pair was found, Elizabeth appeared to not be physically harmed, her family previously told PEOPLE. However, they say she has suffered mentally and emotionally from the alleged abduction.
“I’m trying to create a peaceful environment for her,” Elizabeth’s father, Anthony, previously told PEOPLE. “She’s going to be going through a lot of emotions because [Cummins] put her in a position where she was handling situations that a child that young is not meant to handle.”
Cummins maintains his innocence. On Friday, his request to be released prior to trial was denied by a magistrate judge, PEOPLE confirms.
“Mr. Cummins never employed violence, force, or threats. At no time was the alleged victim held at gun point, hit, or forcibly held,” the court documents obtained by PEOPLE state. “In fact, it appears that she desired to leave a broken home, and a school where she was a bullied outsider.”
Cummins’ public defender in California, Benjamin Galloway, issued a statement defending his client, claiming he has “no history of violence and no criminal history whatsoever,” and that he didn’t coerce, force or threaten Elizabeth.
“This is classic grooming and manipulation,” he adds. “And I predict this case will be studied years in the future about how authority figures like Tad Cummins can mess up young children who believe their lies and are manipulated into doing things they would never do.”
If convicted, Cummins faces a minimum of 10 years to life in prison. Earlier this week, Cummins asked for a public defender. His attorney could not be reached for comment.