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.
The school district did not respond to a request for comment.
Investigators, citing a $4,500 loan Cummins recently obtained and other undisclosed evidence, said the abduction was planned in advance and that Cummins has two handguns. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has added him to its Top 10 Most Wanted list and is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
“What scares us about Mr. Cummins is he’s sort given up his life at this point,” Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland told ABC News.
Cummins’ Twitter page suggests he was once a popular teacher. He described himself as a parent, grandparent and “Jesus freak.”
Cryptic messages appeared on both Thomas and Cummins’ Instagram accounts the day they disappeared. A message on Cummins’ Instagram account read, “Let’s do this.”
At an emotional press conference on Friday, Cummins’ wife, Jill, said she was unaware of her husband’s alleged involvement with Thomas.
“My heart breaks for the family of Beth Thomas,” she said, according to The Columbia Daily Herald. “I want her home just as much as the rest of you, but I’m also very worried about Tad.”
“To that end, let me speak directly to my husband,” she continued. “Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are ... Please do the right thing and turn yourself into the police and bring Beth home.”
District Attorney General Brent Cooper has filed multiple charges against Cummins, including aggravated kidnapping.
“That offense is a Class B felony,” Cooper said. “It carries an eight- to 10-year sentence, if there is a conviction. I’d also like to state for Mr. Cummins that there is a provision that says, if the offender voluntarily releases the victim, or if he provides information that leads to her safe return, that will be weighed in his favor. I urge Mr. Cummins to pick up that phone and call someone ... and let us know where you are so you can start dealing with the consequences.”
On Monday, authorities released additional photographs of Cummins taken approximately one week before Thomas disappeared. It’s possible he’s altered his appearance since then.
“Because of the shockingly low number of tips, the TBI has concluded the individuals are likely out of the view of the general public,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said. “Having last been seen on Monday morning, the individuals could, frankly, be anywhere.”
Cummins is believed to be driving a silver 2015 Nissan Rogue with Tennessee license plate 976-ZPT. Police describe him as white, 6 feet tall, approximately 200 pounds, with brown hair and eyes. Thomas has blonde hair, hazel eyes, is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs approximately 120 pounds. She was last seen wearing a flannel shirt and black leggings.
Thomas’ family said in a statement, “We ask that you continue to share Elizabeth’s story and to immediately notify law enforcement if you think you may have seen her. You can be Elizabeth’s eyes, her ears and her voice. Your information or tip may be what leads to get this child home. As a family, we are focused on one thing and one thing only ― Elizabeth’s safe and quick return.”
Anyone who spots the pair should call 911. Alternatively, tips can be submitted via 1-800-TBI-FIND.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.