Missing Tennessee student: School chief appeals for girl’s safe return
The superintendent of the Tennessee school board where a teacher is accused of kidnapping student Elizabeth Thomas has made an appeal to his former employee.
“If Elizabeth is with you, bring her home,” Maury County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Marczak told CNN on Thursday night. “We want her back. I know her family wants her back. This isn’t good.”
Tad Cummins, who had taught Elizabeth at a high school in Culleoka, some 50 miles southwest of Nashville, is charged with kidnapping her. An Amber Alert was issued for Elizabeth on March 14, the day after authorities declared her missing.
The superintendent’s appeal comes as new details emerged about the 50-year-old suspect who had allegedly convinced Elizabeth he had a swanky, stealthy past as a CIA and FBI agent who was flush with cash.
Chandler Anderson, who once worked with Cummins, told HLN, CNN’s sister network, on Thursday night he was not surprised his former co-worker made the transition from respiratory therapist to high school teacher.
“Tad always had a problem with authority,” Anderson said. “He always had trouble not being the boss. So if you think about what a teacher does, they are the (authority) in their classrooms and kids are not allowed … to question the teacher.”
Cummins used to question doctors in their training and knowledge and “very clearly felt like he was the smartest person in any room he entered,” according to Anderson.
Cummins’ tale of having been a federal law enforcement officer caught the attention of Elizabeth’s father.
“He convinced her that he had been a secret agent and … that he had all kinds of money,” Anthony Thomas told HLN. “It was clear that he had really put a lot of notions into her head.”
But Cummins, who is accused of abducting the girl weeks after another student reported seeing them kissing, was no agent, and he has limited access to cash, authorities said.
In fact, Cummins may have groomed the freshman during her time as a student in his forensics class, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman Josh DeVine said.
“The totality of the picture right now has us more concerned about Elizabeth than we really have been since the start of it,” DeVine told HLN this week.
Destiny Parrish, a former student of Cummins’, said she used to attend church with him after he had invited her.
On the last day she saw Cummins before leaving Tennessee, they “shared a moment,” Parrish told HLN. He hugged her, and they were both close to tears. Parrish said he told her, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not beautiful.”
“It’s definitely a terrifying thing to think you know someone as well as you do, and you don’t know a thing about them,” she said.
Police: Suspect researched teen marriages
Elizabeth has been missing since March 13 after a friend dropped her off at a restaurant in Columbia, Tennessee.
Police said Cummins, who had been suspended from his job after the kissing allegation, was captured on surveillance footage that day pumping gas nearby.
They believe he picked up Elizabeth; by that afternoon, investigators determined the teen may have been about 80 miles to the south, in Decatur, Alabama, the TBI says.
After that, police said, the trail went cold.
Cummins is charged with aggravated kidnapping and sexual misconduct with a minor and has been placed on Tennessee’s most-wanted list.
Cummins already was the subject of a sheriff’s department probe over the classroom kissing allegation, but investigators and Elizabeth’s family say that since the disappearance, they’ve discovered other, troubling indications that the teacher may have been planning a departure with the girl:
• On March 5, Cummins did “online research on the topic of teen marriage,” the TBI says. DeVine declined to elaborate.
“We don’t want to go into specifics because he might still be using some of that (information) … but suffice it to say that is an issue that we have some major concerns of because it might potentially speak to his intentions for her,” DeVine said.
• On March 10, Cummins searched the Internet for information on whether certain features of his vehicle, a Nissan Rogue, could be tracked by law enforcement, the TBI says.
• A status line on the girl’s Instagram account was updated recently to refer to her as “wife,” her family says. In full, the line says: “Elizabeth Thomas CHS | class of 2019. Wife.”
Anthony Thomas told HLN the account is Elizabeth’s. The TBI has not confirmed that the account is hers, but “there are some troubling things out there in social media that really speak to the nature of this relationship that has us really concerned for her well-being right now,” DeVine said.
• Elizabeth’s brother, James Thomas, told HLN she told a sibling she was going somewhere on March 13 but to call police if she hadn’t returned by 6 p.m.
Investigators are trying to authenticate that alleged statement, DeVine said.
The kissing allegation
The teen’s disappearance came after a chain of events that began January 23 when a student allegedly saw Cummins giving Elizabeth “a peck on the lips” in a classroom, according to an internal school investigation report provided to CNN by Jason Whatley, an attorney for the girl’s father.
The school began investigating January 25. Elizabeth and Cummins made statements denying they had kissed, the report says.
Cummins called Elizabeth “a really good friend” and said she came to see him when she needed someone to calm her down. Elizabeth said she looked to Cummins as a counselor.
The report concluded the allegation the two had kissed could not be confirmed but recommended Elizabeth be taken out of Cummins’ class. The district gave Cummins a reprimand on January 31 and told him not to allow the girl in his classroom, the reprimand reads.
The girl’s father, Anthony Thomas, said he didn’t know of the kissing allegation until a sheriff’s detective informed him on January 31 that his department was investigating. Thomas hired Whatley to find out more.
On February 3, the district received information that Elizabeth was again in Cummins’ classroom despite the prohibition. Cummins was suspended without pay on February 6, documents that Whatley gave to CNN show.
Thomas said that when he confronted his daughter about the kissing allegation, “she told me nothing was going on.”