Manhunt intensifies for missing Tenn. teacher, student

Police are searching this morning for a former teacher accused of convincing a teenage student to run away with him. Investigators in Tennessee believe Tad Cummins kidnapped 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas.
Cummins was fired from his teaching job last week over alleged inappropriate behavior with the teen. He faces charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping.

On the day Thomas disappeared, both wrote cryptic messages on Instagram. She posted a quote about “Beauty and the Beast.” Cummins wrote: “Let’s do this.”

Thomas was last seen at a restaurant in Columbia, Tenn., exactly a week ago, wearing black leggings and a flannel shirt. Investigators tell correspondent Omar Villafranca they have no idea where Thomas and her suspected kidnapper are now. Part of the reason? Both of their cellphones have been turned off.

James Thomas has a message for the man suspected of taking his younger sister: “Even if he doesn’t go with her, if he could leave her somewhere safe and let the police know where she is, so we can have her, if he can just drop her in a public place and say, ‘Hey, here she is.’”

A friend dropped Thomas off at Shoney’s Restaurant in Columbia the morning of March 13. About eight hours later, information obtained by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation placed the teenager about 70 miles away, in Decatur, Ala.

Surveillance video appears to show Cummins putting gas in his silver Nissan before allegedly meeting up with Thomas on the morning she disappeared. 

“We honestly have no idea where these two individuals are right now,” said Josh Devine, of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Despite amber alerts in Tennessee and Alabama, Devine says his agency isn’t getting the influx of tips they need.

“Either they’re off the grid so they’re outside the view of the general public, or they’re outside our original concentration area here in the Southeast,” he said.

Fifty-year-old Cummins worked at the Central Tennessee High School where Thomas is a freshman.  In a letter to the Maury County School District, Thomas family attorney Jason Whatley claimed another student saw Cummins kissing Thomas in January.

The school district says they suspended Cummins when they were notified of the allegations. But Whatley says the school waited more than a week to take action.

“Any suggestion that he was suspended immediately when these allegations came out is just false,” he told Villafranca.

Over the weekend, Cummins’ wife begged him to come home. “This is not who you are,” Jill Cummins said. “We can help you get through this.

“My heart breaks for the family of Beth Thomas,” she added.

When asked what it might take for a break in the case, Devine said, “It takes one person who might be driving down a road and sees that Tennessee license plate, and they call 911, that breaks this thing wide open.”

“It’s been a week out; are you still optimistic?” Villafranca asked. 

“You have to be optimistic. The mission of our agency is to find him, make sure he’s in custody, and bring her home.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations says Cummins, who has no criminal record in Tennessee, is armed with two handguns.

Investigators also tell CBS News that Cummins appears to have been planning this for some time by watching survivalist shows.

© WTVF tad-cummins-kidnapping-2017-3-18.jpg

Cops Hunt Teacher Accused Of Abducting Student

Tennessee investigators are racing against time to find a kidnapped teen whose disappearance has captured national attention.

Elizabeth Thomas, 15, disappeared from a restaurant in Columbia, Tennessee, seven days ago, and authorities believe her former teacher, Tad Cummins, abducted her. An Amber Alert for Thomas has been issued, and a nationwide manhunt is underway for Cummins, who vanished the same day.

Cummins was recently suspended from his teaching job for inappropriate contact with the teen. Authorities believe he is armed and that Thomas is “in imminent danger.”

“Nothing investigators have learned about Cummins or his intentions for the young girl since issuing the Amber Alert calms the imminent concern for Elizabeth’s well-being,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation wrote in a press release. “In fact, it only heightens it.”

Another student at Culleoka Unit School reported seeing Cummins, a former health sciences teacher, kiss Thomas on the lips in January. When school officials questioned Thomas about the incident, she allegedly denied the allegation.

“She looks at him like a friend and counselor who knows how to calm her down when she is experiencing anxiety,” reads an investigative report the district issued, based on the witness’ account. “She stated students hang out in his classroom a lot.”

Authorities now suspect the teen was lying for Cummins, who also denied engaging in inappropriate behavior.

“The 50-year-old may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her,” said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

School officials allowed Thomas to continue teaching until February before they suspended him. He was formally dismissed a day after Thomas went missing.

Jason Whatley, the Thomas family’s attorney, said school officials failed to take immediate action and allowed Cummins and Thomas to remain in touch.

“Any suggestion that he was suspended immediately when these allegations came out is just false,” Whatley said, according to CBS affiliate WFOR-TV.

Ex-Teacher Accused of Kidnapping Student Is ‘Off the Grid’ After Allegedly Fleeing with Teen

As the investigation into the alleged abduction of a 15-year-old Tennessee girl by her 50-year-old former teacher enters its second week, officials say the pair seems to have gone “off the grid.”

“We still [have a lack of] information, lack of quality leads and a lack of quantity leads,” Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman Josh DeVine says of the disappearance of Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas.

Thomas, who goes by Elizabeth, was reported missing in Maury County, Tennessee, on the afternoon of March 13 — after she asked a friend to drop her off at a local Shoney’s that morning.

Tad Cummins, a health science teacher at her high school, allegedly picked her up before she disappeared.

DeVine says investigators were able to place Thomas in Alabama last week, but they have not been able to locate the high school freshman since.

Investigators have received more than 450 tips, DeVine says.

“We firmly believe that they are essentially off the grid and Cummins has her out of public view,” he says, urging the public to search their properties, local camp grounds, rural areas and parking garages.

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 an alleged sexual interaction between him and Thomas in January on school property.

“It’s been a week, and anything is possible,” DeVine tells PEOPLE. “They might have changed their appearance or changed their vehicle. We’re trying to cast the widest net possible.”

“She’s a high school freshman. He was a teacher accused of kidnapping her. Let’s find her now!” DeVine tweeted on Saturday. Cummins’ wife and Thomas’ family have also issued emotional pleas.

On Monday, investigators released new photos and surveillance footage of Cummins in a local Wal-Mart days before he allegedly kidnapped Thomas.

In one of the videos, Cummins appears to be shopping in the beauty section — specifically an aisle for hair dye. DeVine could not confirm what Cummins purchased that day.

Thomas was picked up from her home the morning of March 13 by a female friend, investigators say, and was last seen at 7:45 a.m. at the Shoney’s. By 12:41 p.m., she was missing.

Cummins was seen after 8 a.m. that day on surveillance camera at a local gas station adjacent to the Shoney’s. Authorities believe he got Thomas after putting gas in his car.

The Thomas family’s attorney told PEOPLE that hours before her alleged kidnapping, Thomas told her family she was meeting a female friend — but to call the police if she went missing.

AMBER Alerts have been issued in both Alabama and Tennessee, along with a national BOLO Alert.

Cummins is believed to be “armed and dangerous” and carrying two handguns, DeVine says. He has no criminal history in Tennessee, according to authorities.

The Maury County Public School District, where Cummins worked, released a statement last week announcing his termination.

“I think that every day that goes by, we get more concern for [Thomas’] well-being,” DeVine says.

“We want her home as quickly as possible, and the fact that she’s not is certainly frustrating,” he says. “But the reality is we remain hopeful, because all it takes is one person who knows what to be looking for and what to do when [they] see it.”

DeVine urges 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.

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