On Friday, FBI Agent Utley Noble’s testimony in a court hearing revealed more about what happened after Cummins picked up the teenage girl at a Shoney’s in Culleoka, Tenn.
The ultimate destination was Mexico, where, Cummins told the girl, she would lie about her age and they would pass as a married couple. He chose the names John and Joanne Castro, thinking Hispanic names would help them blend in, according to investigators, the Tennessean reported.
To cross the border, he bought a $1,500 two-seat kayak, and conducted a test run to see if he could avoid authorities who were patrolling the Pacific Ocean, the newspaper reported.
The plan had been in the works for weeks, authorities say.
Before she ran off with her teacher, Elizabeth Thomas had a “troubled life,” authorities said, including a mother who was arrested on felony child abuse charges, according to the Columbia Daily Herald. The teenager allegedly told investigators that her mother “banged her head into the agitator of the washing machine,” the Daily Herald reported, citing court documents.
Cummins was the girl’s health teacher at Culleoka High School. The girl’s father told “Good Morning America” that his daughter had been “brainwashed” by the teacher. It’s unclear when the student-teacher relationship turned physical, but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) 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.
In mid-March, Cummins handed over the title of his sport-utility vehicle, put up some other personal effects as collateral and walked out of a loan office with $4,500 in cash. He wrote a letter to his wife saying he was going away for a few days to clear his head and picked up Elizabeth at the Shoney’s.
He had already used a YouTube tutorial to dismantle the GPS on his vehicle and squeezed a mattress into the back, according to Noble’s testimony. Cummins had replaced his car’s license plate with an Alabama tag.
Alabama was their first stop. When they arrived, they threw their cellphones into the Tennessee River, then headed north to Oklahoma, where they picked up provisions at a Walmart and headed west.
They stopped again in Colorado, Noble testified, where Cummins bought an iPad to better monitor news accounts about the pair’s movements as they traveled southwest.
In San Diego, Cummins bought the kayak, the Tennessean reported. But while on a test run to Mexico, they were met with rough seas and, worse, an unidentified law enforcement officer, who watched as they returned to shore.
As the pair traversed the nation, investigators were baffled. They had 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 that Cummins was keeping Elizabeth out of sight of authorities, possibly sleeping in his car or in a rural community.
In mid-April, 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.
He gave them money for food and gas, then grew suspicious, saw the Amber alert and called police.
Peter Holley contributed to this report.