Tad Cummins was suspended by his school for an “inappropriate relationship” with a female student two weeks before police say the teacher kidnapped her, according to documents.
Cummins, 50, worked at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee, where Mary Catherine Elizabeth Thomas, 15, was enrolled. “Izzy,” as she was known to friends and family, disappeared from a local restaurant on March 13. The Maury County district attorney has charged Cummins with sexual exploitation of a minor and aggravated kidnapping. Cummins’s whereabouts are also unknown.
The last credible sighting of the two was in Decatur, Alabama, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. It implored rural homeowners to check their grounds for Cummins’s car, and for campers to remain on alert.
Some reports suggest Elizabeth feared Cummins and tried to avoid at her workplace. She reportedly asked a coworker to cover for her and pretend that she wasn’t there when Cummins visited her workplace. Elizabeth hid in the bathroom during the exchange, according to her father, the family’s attorney told a local news station.
Prosecutors say Cummins preyed on a vulnerable girl.
The teenager had been homeschooled until she started at Culleoka high school as a freshman this year. She is one of ten children living with her father, and is suspected of being a victim of domestic abuse.
Elizabeth’s mother, Kimberly Thomas, was arrested last year on five counts of child abuse and neglect, according to an indictment reviewed by The Daily Beast. Kimberly Thomas allegedly made the kids get naked in front of adults, and banged Elizabeth’s head against a washing machine. She denied the allegations to a local TV station. The case is pending and her attorney did not return a request for comment.
"I don't believe she feels she's being hurt okay, but she's 15," Kimberly Thomas told the station. "She doesn't know any better and she is being hurt and damaged.”
The teen’s social media shows that she struggled with self esteem. One recent Instagram post featured a cartoon girl labeled as “broken,” while others lamented how ugly Elizabeth always felt. More recently, however, posts talked about being in love.
“I want to spend all 9 lives with you,” read one image of a cat.
Elizabeth’s family background made her more susceptible to predatory approaches from teachers, Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper told WHNT19.
"Most educators would sympathize with that child and probably even try to get them some help however they could," Cooper told WHNT19. "But that's not what Mr. Cummins did. He decided to act his own desires apparently.”
Among the troubling allegations levied against Cummins is the claim that he was caught kissing Elizabeth in school. And he apparently planned ahead for what was to come.
“Ongoing investigative efforts continue to reveal a troubling pattern of behavior by Cummins prior to their disappearance,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said in a statement. “For example, 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. Investigators also determined that five days earlier, on March 5th, Cummins did similar online research on the topic of teen marriage.”
Letters from Cummins's personnel file, posted online by a local news station, show the school trying to stop contact between Cummins and the girl. School officials instructed him not to have her in his room—and told Elizabeth to avoid him. He was censured for disobeying these instructions on February 3.
“On January 31, 2017, you were instructed by Principal Penny Love not to allow Mary Catherine Thomas in your classroom,” the letter said. That same day, Elizabeth “was instructed by Principal Penny Love not to be in your classroom, and to seek counseling from CUS High School Guidance Counselor, Alison Reischman, if needed.”
That didn’t stick.
“On February 3, 2017, Mary Catherine Thomas was in your classroom from 12:11 p.m. -12:44 p.m. This was a violation of my directive to you on January 31, 2017,” Love told him.
Days later, he was suspended.
“Mr. Cummins has conducted himself in an unprofessional manner,” the letter stated as an explanation. “The evidence obtained by the District supports a conclusion that Mr. Cummins has engaged in and/or created the appearance of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student.”
And he showed a “willful disregard” of instructions from his superiors and the district, it added, a far cry from the rosy picture Cummins portrayed when he first applied.
“I have often thought that I would love to be a teacher, and just might excel at it, but it never seemed to be my destiny,” Cummins wrote on his teaching application. “When this opportunity presented itself I recalled that one of my favorite teachers came to teaching as a second career. That helped me believe that I can, too."
Prior to joining the school district in 2011, Cummins worked as a respiratory therapist for two decades.
His references for the school job were co-workers from medical supply companies where he’d previously worked.
“If you were personally responsible, would you recommend the employment of this applicant?” the questionnaire asked.
The Daily Beast reached out to his references, including one who have him a five-star rating throughout. One reference said Cummins didn’t reach deep for his references.
“Honestly, I briefly knew him,” Jeff Walker said. “I was in sales, and he was a respiratory therapist. And it was a very brief, brief acquaintance, if you would call it that.”
The company worked with adults, “so there was never an opportunity to be around young people,” Walker said. “He put me as a reference, and if anyone had called, I would’ve been like, who?”