Missing Student, 15, Pictured in Class with Teacher 'Days Before' His Alleged Sexual Contact with Her
Investigators on Tuesday released a photo of missing Tennessee teen Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas in class in January with her former high school teacher Tad Cummins — the man who allegedly kidnapped her last week.
The photo was taken “days before” Cummins allegedly had sexual contact with the 15-year-old Thomas on school property, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Cummins, a 50-year-old ex-health sciences teacher at Thomas’ high school in Maury County, Tennessee, is accused of abducting her on March 13, after she was dropped off by a friend at a local Shoney’s that morning.
A warrant has been issued for Cummins’ arrest on charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, according to the TBI. The latter claim stems from the alleged interaction that authorities referred to when releasing Tuesday’s photo.
Cummins is believed to be “armed and dangerous” and carrying two handguns, according to TBI spokesman Josh DeVine. He has no criminal history in Tennessee, according to authorities.
The Maury County Public School District, which employed Cummins at the Culleoka Unit School, released a statement last week announcing his termination.
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Thomas — who goes by Elizabeth — was reported missing by her family on March 13 after she told them she was spending the day with a female friend. According to investigators, at approximately 7:45 a.m., Thomas had her friend drop her off at the Shoney’s.
Shortly after 8 a.m., security footage shows Cummins at a gas station adjacent to the restaurant.
Investigators believe he picked Thomas up after he got gas. Neither of them has been seen since, and authorities allege Cummins is likely keeping Thomas “off the grid” and out of view.
Thomas had warned her family to call the police if she didn’t come home on March 13, the family’s attorney, Jason Whatley, told PEOPLE. He claimed that Cummins “groomed” her before they both vanished.
Before she disappeared, Thomas changed one of her social media profiles bios to say “wife” with a ring emoji.
Whatley says his clients are both “shocked and saddened” by even a reference to the idea that Thomas wants to marry Cummins.
“It is simply demonstrative of the power he has over her,” Whatley says. “If in fact they are together — and everything we believe is happening — then that change of status is perfectly consistent with a man who would groom a young, impressionable girl into such a thing.”
“There’s a numbness about it,” he adds.
Hair Dye Purchase Not Connected to Alleged Abduction: Investigators
The TBI confirmed Tuesday that Cummins bought hair dye at a local Wal-Mart days before Thomas’ disappearance — but said it was unconnected to the case.
“We have determined the purchase of hair dye by Tad Cummins was not part of his [alleged] plan” for Thomas, DeVine tweeted.
The TBI on Monday released surveillance footage of Cummins shopping, saying he was at a Wal-Mart in Columbia, Tennessee, days before the alleged kidnapping.
In the video, Cummins is seen shopping for women’s hair dye, which had fueled speculation before DeVine’s announcement. Authorities were previously unable to confirm what Cummins purchased at Wal-Mart.
Thomas’ family, via their attorney, told PEOPLE on Tuesday that they were nonetheless distraught by the footage.
“It’s a combination of feelings,” Whatley said. “There’s the shock of knowing that there’s this man who has their loved one — but at the same time, appreciation [knowing that] the more information is revealed the more productive the investigation.”
“[We] believe anything is possible in that regard,” Whatley said. “Did he dye his hair, did he shave his facial hair, did she dye her hair or cut it? All of these things are possible.”
That echoes the position of state investigators.
“They might have changed their appearance or changed their vehicle,” DeVine said Monday. “We’re trying to cast the widest net possible.”
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Officials are urging the public to search their properties, local camp grounds, rural areas and parking garages.
The TBI asks anyone who believes they spot Cummins or Thomas to not approach them and instead keep an eye on them while calling 911.
Thomas was last seen wearing a flannel shirt and black leggings. She is 5 feet 5 inches inches tall and weighs 120 lbs., with blonde hair and hazel eyes.
Cummins was seen driving a Silver Nissan Rogue with Tennessee license plate 976ZPT, according to the TBI. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 lbs., with brown hair and eyes.
Anyone with information on Cummins or Thomas should call the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.