The Saga of Missing Teen Elizabeth Thomas: From Her Disappearance to Discovery to Teacher's Arrest
Elizabeth Thomas and Her Teacher Disappear
Elizabeth Thomas, a 15-year-old girl in Tennessee, is reported missing on March 13. One of her high school teachers, 50-year-old Tad Cummins, vanishes the same day. State authorities allege he has abducted Thomas, and an AMBER Alert is issued on March 14. Later that week, Tennessee officials take out an arrest warrant for Cummins on charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor — the latter charge in connection with an alleged kiss with Elizabeth in January on school grounds.
Photo of Elizabeth Thomas Leaving Her Home
Days after she disappears, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation releases the last-known photograph of Elizabeth Thomas — as allegations quickly surface that she was groomed by Cummins. Her family's attorney tells PEOPLE that she had warned them to call police if she did not return home by a certain time the day she went missing. Meanwhile, investigators say the pair "could be anywhere."
Relatives Make Emotional Pleas
Both Elizabeth's family and Cummins's wife go public in asking for her return. "Please help us bring her home," her father says on March 18. Cummins's wife, Jill Cummins, also speaks out the previous day, saying, "Let me speak directly to my husband. Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are." Citing a lack of quality leads, state investigators allege Cummins may be keeping Elizabeth "off the grid" and out of view.
Suspect Researched Teen Marriage
The TBI reveals on March 21 that Cummins researched the topic of teen marriage in the days before he and Elizabeth disappeared. Authorities also say that Cummins was doing Internet searches on whether his Nissan Rogue could be tracked by law enforcement.
Missing Teen's Dad Speaks Out
Elizabeth's father, Anthony Thomas, told PEOPLE that he thinks his daughter was preyed upon by Cummins while she was in school. "He built up a system where she was dependent on him," Anthony Thomas says.
Pictured: The Missing Pair in Class
On March 21, state investigators release a photo of Elizabeth and Cummins in his classroom in January. Cummins taught health sciences at the Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee, before he was fired after he and Elizabeth vanished. On March 27, prosecutors tell PEOPLE that Elizabeth and Cummins exchanged "romantic" and "troubling" messages through his work email. "Investigators have used the term ‘grooming’ — I think the messages could definitely be considered as part of that," the Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper says. In a later court filing, on April 6, Elizabeth's family alleges that Cummins pressured the girl to go out with him by threatening her with "repercussions at school."
Suspect Thought He'd Make a Great Teacher
“I have often thought that I would love to be a teacher, and just might excel at it, but it never seemed to be my destiny,” Cummins wrote in his 2011 employment application to the Culleoka Unit School. The application, which was obtained by PEOPLE, details Cummins’s long work history — starting in 1985 as a technician at a medical equipment center.
Elizabeth's Family Renews Their Plea
Teen and Teacher Spotted in Oklahoma
Suspect's Wife Files for Divorce
Cummins's wife, Jill Cummins, announces on March 31 that she has filed for divorce. Her attorney says in a statement to local media, "Today Jill Walters Cummins filed for divorce from Tad Cummins, her husband of 31 years. The filing of the divorce complaint is the first step to removing Jill from this situation. Jill will attempt to move forward with her life. This is a difficult time for her and her family."
Teacher's Former Student Describes Relationship
Nineteen-year-old Destany Parrish, who was a student of Cummins's during the 2011-2012 school year, tells PEOPLE that he may have exhibited similar "grooming" behaviors with her at the time. "I definitely think, on his end, it was a bit more than a friendship — it's hard not to think that now," she says.
Suspect's Family Breaks Their Silence
Cummins's family gives an interview to ABC News the week of April 10 in which they again urge him to return. "No matter where you are, daddy, no matter what you’ve done, we just want you to come home," one of his daughters says. Meanwhile Jill tells the network that though she forgives and still loves her husband, that "doesn't mean I could ever trust him again." Jill's attorney tells PEOPLE on April 13 that his client had been aware of the accusation that Cummins allegedly kissed Elizabeth on school grounds, but she didn't initially believe the claim.
Authorities Hope Cummins Will Surface for His Medication
Teen and Suspect Found at Last
On Thursday, the TBI announces that Elizabeth and Cummins have been found safe in Northern California and that he has been arrested. Investigators revealed they were tipped off Wednesday night that the missing pair was living in a cabin in Cecilville, California. Cummins was taken into custody about dawn, authorities said. (The tipster soon speaks out himself). A criminal complaint obtained by PEOPLE on Friday further outlines the case against Cummins.
Inside the Cabin Where Cummins and Elizabeth Are Found
Only about a day after authorities say Cummins and Elizabeth were found in Northern California, CNN goes inside the cabin where they lived. According to CNN, it was still in the process of being built and had no running water, electricity or heat piping into its tiny four-walled structure. A portable grill with some food was found, the network reports.
Elizabeth's Family Is 'Ecstatic' About Her Recovery
Only hours after authorities announce Elizabeth's discovery on Thursday, they say she is flying back to Tennessee and seems "healthy and unharmed." District Attorney Cooper says her well-being is their priority: "We want her to re-acquaint herself with her family and friends. But as soon as she is ready to get help, we will offer it." Elizabeth's family tells PEOPLE they are thrilled she has been found. Her grandmother says, "We’re absolutely ecstatic, what other things could we say? And we’re very appreciative for all the people that prayed for this day to happen."