Elizabeth Thomas Ate Wildflowers to Survive and Was in 'Fragile' Condition While Missing: Lawyer
Elizabeth Thomas was allegedly abducted by her 50-year-old teacher, Tad Cummins
Now, as the 15-year-old receives counseling and Cummins, 50, sits in jail awaiting extradition, details are emerging on her experience when she was missing for 38 days.
Elizabeth and Cummins were allegedly in Northern California for a week and a half, authorities believe, spending a few days and nights in Berkley and Black Bear Ranch Commune before ending up in a cabin in rural Cecilville, more than 2,000 miles from Tennessee.
Family attorney Jason Whatley says the cabin could be described as a four-walled shelter without running water or electricity or heat piping. Elizabeth and Cummins at times ate wildflowers to survive, which led to Elizabeth losing a significant amount of weight.
Among some personal possessions found in the cabin were toilet paper, food items and a beer bottle, Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey previously told PEOPLE.
The lack of food showed, Whatley says. When he met Elizabeth last week, she was physically and emotionally “fragile.”
“I was so shocked when I saw her first,” Whatley says. “I didn’t know it but she was even smaller than she was used to be being. She [had] lost a lot [of weight].”
Whatley also says the teen also appeared to not have shower or bathed the entire time she was gone, asking to take a shower as soon as she was rescued.
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Griffin Barry, the caretaker of the cabin who called authorities when he recognized the pair from the ongoing AMBER Alert they were the subject of, says he gave the couple food in exchange for manual labor around the property.
According to Barry, Cummins passed himself and Elizabeth off as a couple named “John” and “Joanna” and said Elizabeth was 24. Whatley says Cummins would do most of the talking, with Elizabeth whispering in his ear. Barry tells PEOPLE he only heard Elizabeth speak once.
“One time I had given him food that night and [she] was like, ‘Thank you,’ ” Barry recalls about giving Elizabeth rice and clementines. “She got excited over some food.”
Clothing-Optional Commune and ‘Damaging’ Treatment
Whatley says that Cummins “treated her like a child at times. I think most people would agree that the combination of treating her like a child and an adult woman in the same relationship, like a light switched [and] turned it on and off, [is] damaging.”
Before settling at the remote cabin Whatley say Cummins brought Elizabeth to Black Bear Ranch, a clothing-optional commune. Whatley says Elizabeth was for a few days was in the presence of nude men before they pair headed to Cecilville, where they met Barry.
According to the commune’s website, Elizabeth and Cummins were “asked to leave” by residents after a few days.
“Residents had no access to national news and had no idea who this couple was, [their] ages or their history in relation to the charges that have now surfaced,” a statement reads.
The statement adds that the commune “does not condone the acts that Tad Cummins has been charged with.”
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Whatley says when she reunited with her family, Elizabeth was “quiet,” but he says it was obvious the weeks allegedly with Cummins had taken an emotional toll.
“She’s had moments of being carefree and fun, but [at the same time] she’s very, very fragile and that’s something the family is watching very carefully.”
On Monday, Cummins’ public defender, 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, Cummins’ former student at the Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee.
Cummins — who authorities said faces kidnapping and sex crime charges in California and Tennessee as well as a federal charge — “surrendered without incident and has been cooperative with investigators,” Galloway said. “He looks forward to returning to Tennessee as soon as possible to answer the charges against him.”
Whatley says any suggestion that Elizabeth might have gone willingly is “amazingly absurd.”
“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.”
Cummins appeared in federal court in Sacramento, California, on Monday afternoon. He faces one federal count of transporting a minor with the intent to engage in sexual activity across state lines.
He has not entered a plea and was detained as a flight risk.
He will be transported to Tennessee “as soon as possible,” a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman said.