ON THE LAM

Investigators: New Footage Shows Kidnapped Girl, Teacher With Altered Appearances

Two days after a teacher allegedly kidnapped a 15-year-old student, they were spotted 650 miles away wearing disguises.

TENNESSEE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

Days before Tad Cummins allegedly kidnapped Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas, surveillance footage from a Tennessee Walmart showed him looking at dark red women’s hair dye. Two days after the alleged kidnapping, Cummins and Thomas were spotted together at a different Walmart, more than 650 miles away— and Thomas’s light brown hair appeared to be dyed dark red.

Cummins, 50, is believed to have kidnapped Thomas, 15, on March 13. A former teacher at Thomas’s school in Maury County, Tennessee, Cummins was suspended in February after “engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student,” his personnel file reveals. He had allegedly demonstrated inappropriate behavior toward Thomas, including trying to kiss her, and continued to make contact with her even after the school ordered him to stop. Barely a month after his suspension, Cummins disappeared with Thomas. Since March 13, they have been seen only once—and the sighting suggests Cummins may have carefully planned his flight with the underage girl.

New footage released by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations shows Cummins and Thomas in a Walmart in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 15, two days after the alleged kidnapping. It is the only confirmed sighting of pair. Their appearance on camera is brief. Cummins pushes a shopping cart through the store’s front entrance while Thomas walks alongside him. In a statement, the TBI said Cummins used cash to purchase food, but did not buy anything significant.

But both Cummins’s and Thomas’s appearances are significantly different from when they disappeared. In the footage, Cummins appears to have dyed his gray beard darker. Thomas’s light brown hair appears dark red.

“The surveillance images of Cummins and Thomas ... clearly show Tad Cummins with an altered appearance to darken his hair,” the TBI said in a statement. “The same images show Elizabeth may currently have red hair.”

The March 15 video is not the first footage of Cummins behaving suspiciously in a Walmart. When Cummins and Thomas disappeared, the TBI released footage of Cummins in a Tennessee Walmart, in the hopes that someone might recognize Cummins from the video. The video shows him making multiple trips up and down an aisle full of women’s hair dye. He finally selects a package from a shelf full of dark red and brown dyes. The footage was captured “in the days before they disappeared,” a TBI spokesperson said.

Now Cummins’s strange purchase has taken on a grim new significance, suggesting that he may have planned to abscond with Thomas and alter their appearances. Investigators have compiled other evidence indicating that Cummins might have planned the alleged kidnapping.

“Investigative efforts have determined that on March 10th, Cummins did online research about his Nissan Rogue, in an effort to determine if certain features could be tracked by law enforcement,” the TBI said in a statement last month. “Investigators also determined that five days earlier, on March 5th, Cummins did similar online research on the topic of teen marriage.”

Cummins’s reappearance with Thomas in Oklahoma just two days after the alleged kidnapping also suggests advance planning. Oklahoma City is more than 650 miles away, nearly 10 hours by car from Maury County. To make matters worse, investigators previously thought Cummins might have fled with Thomas in the opposite direction, after the TBI received a tip that the pair had been sighted in Alabama. The tip was debunked last week.

But the new footage has offered some solace Thomas’s family.

“The Oklahoma City sighting is the first piece of evidence that Tad and Elizabeth did leave together and they are together,” Thomas’s father said in a statement on behalf of the family. “It is no longer a matter of speculation. We now know with certainty that he took her. Seeing those photos of Elizabeth brought me such mixed emotions. It was good to be able to see her face, finally.”

Thomas’s father said he thinks of his daughter every time he drives past Shoney’s, the restaurant where Thomas was working when she disappeared.

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“Every time I drive by Shoney’s, I think about how that was the last place she was seen alive. It’s so good to know she’s out there. My precious little girl is out there, and we have to bring her home.”

While Thomas’s coworkers at Shoney’s told police that she left the restaurant with a bag and entered Cummins’s car on March 13, her family told local media that Thomas had not intended to disappear for long.

On the morning of her disappearance, "she woke up her older sister and said 'Hey I'm leaving, but if I'm not back by 6:00 come looking for me,'" her sister-in-law Danielle Thomas told WHNT.

Coworkers also indicated that Thomas may have previously hidden in the restaurant when Cummins came looking for her. Once, when Cummins visited the restaurant, Thomas allegedly hid in the bathroom and begged a coworker to tell Cummins she wasn’t working that day, her family’s lawyer told WKRN.

Even if she had willingly accepted a ride from Cummins on March 13, the underage girl had long been the target of predatory behavior from the former teacher, prosecutors allege. A former homeschool student, Thomas might have been viewed as more vulnerable by a predatory adult.

"Most educators would sympathize with that child and probably even try to get them some help however they could," Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper told WHNT. "But that's not what Mr. Cummins did. He decided to act his own desires apparently.”

Cummins took a job with the school district in 2011, prior to which he worked as a respiratory therapist. When he applied for the teaching position, he cited references from his previous career—some of whom barely knew him, The Daily Beast previously reported.

Thomas’s family said they will not allow Cummins to escape detection again.

“Please take note that Elizabeth’s hair is dyed darker now, as is Tad’s,” her father said. “They have made an effort to disguise themselves. We will not be fooled by this disguise. Our family cannot express how much we appreciate everyone searching for them and remaining aware that they are out there.”