Tad Cummins, 50, told authorities that he was glad the manhunt was finally over, even though the federal and state sexual assault and kidnapping charges he faces could land him in prison for years.
But 15-year-old Elizabeth was stoic, authorities said, and showed no signs that she was happy she was going back to her life in central Tennessee. “She didn’t act like a rescued person would act,” her father said.
Anthony Thomas, the teen’s father, told “Good Morning America” on Friday that he thinks his daughter was “brainwashed.” Her family has been treading lightly with her ever since. They were reunited over the weekend, but her sister and father said they have been shying away from details of the teenager’s ordeal. One thing is clear, they said on Monday: The last month has left Elizabeth changed.
“She didn’t look like herself at all,” Elizabeth’s father said on CNN Headline News’s “Primetime Justice.” “She looked like she was very worn out — very thin and very jittery. That really wasn’t her. She’s actually somebody that’s more sure of herself and usually all smiles. She was the life of the party.”
“What we want to see when we look at her is the child we knew,” Thomas told ABC News on Sunday. “She may not be exactly … the person she was, because there’s a lot of experiences she’s had.”
Elizabeth has asked to see her baby sister, Thomas said, but he said most of their conversations are about trying to “just keep things positive,” according to ABC News. “I go in there and tell her how much I missed her, how much I love her and how much her dog missed her,” he said. “I’m not allowed to ask her about things that happened along the way right now.”
After authorities rescued Elizabeth and arrested Cummins, details began to emerge about their days on the run — and about Cummins’s ultimate goal.
Elizabeth had a “troubled life,” authorities have said. Her mother faces child abuse charges and a May 12 court date for alleged crimes against the teen and her siblings. Kimberly Thomas was accused of forcing her children to strip in front of other people and once allegedly threw Elizabeth down basement steps, then locked the door, the Columbia Daily Herald reported. The teen allegedly told investigators that her mother “banged her head into the agitator of the washing machine.”
Kimberly Thomas still can’t see her daughter; a restraining order was granted on Monday.
Against that backdrop, Elizabeth met Cummins, who was her health teacher at Culleoka High School. It’s unclear when their relationship turned physical, but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Cummins was “abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl … to lure and potentially sexually exploit her.”
They were spotted kissing at the school earlier this year, and the situation began to spiral. Cummins was on the verge of being fired, according to the TBI; a criminal investigation was swirling; and the health teacher, who was armed with two handguns, had little left to lose.
Cummins began making plans to flee, federal court documents filed Monday say. And he wanted to take Elizabeth with him. In mid-March, Cummins handed over the title of his SUV, put up some other personal effects as collateral and walked out of a loan office with $4,500 in cash.
He and Thomas eluded authorities for more than a month, switching license plates, changing their physical appearances and using only cash to survive.
It worked at first. Five days after they disappeared, the TBI said, “Cummins may have taken her, frankly, anywhere.”
He was hoping to take her to Mexico, court documents say, even using a small watercraft for “a test run.”
After the pair’s disappearance, investigators said they received hundreds of tips from 24 states but not enough information to tighten the dragnet, despite a multistate manhunt and Cummins’s placement on Tennessee’s most-wanted list. The TBI suspected Cummins was keeping Elizabeth out of sight of authorities, possibly sleeping in his car or in a rural community.
Their hunch was ultimately correct.
Last week, John Barry, the caretaker of a remote northern California property, became suspicious about two people he initially thought were in distress, according to the AP. They told him their names were John and Joanna and that they needed a place to stay and money for food and gas. But the girl avoided eye contact, Barry said, and Cummins “was always dominating the conversation.”
A short time later, Barry saw the pair on an Amber alert. He picked up the phone and called the police.