Crime - Sacto 911

Tennessee teacher accused of kidnapping 15-year-old girl planned to take her to Mexico, prosecutors say

Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins appeared in a Sacramento federal court Monday. Cummins, who was arrested April 20 in Siskiyou County, faces state charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor and federal charges of taking a minor across state lines for sex.
Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins appeared in a Sacramento federal court Monday. Cummins, who was arrested April 20 in Siskiyou County, faces state charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor and federal charges of taking a minor across state lines for sex. Vicky Behringer

Tad Cummins’ plan, federal prosecutors said, was to take the 15-year-old girl to Mexico. Instead, he’s headed back to Tennessee – to face charges of kidnapping a teenager and participating in a cross-country sex trip with her that ended in California.

In a Sacramento courtroom on Monday, the teacher from Culleoka, Tenn., agreed through his lawyer to return to his home state, which authorities say he left in mid-March with Elizabeth Thomas, the girl who was a student at the school where Cummins taught.

Along with the girl, authorities say Cummins also absconded with his wife’s car, $4,500 in their cash, and a prescription of Cialis, the popular TV drug that treats erectile dysfunction.

Cummins, who was arrested last week in Siskiyou County, was in Sacramento to make his initial court appearance in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall J. Newman. He is charged federally with one count of transporting an underage person across state lines for the purpose of sex. He also is charged in Siskiyou County with kidnapping and possession of stolen property and in Maury County, Tenn., with sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hitt’s motion to detain Cummins pending the outcome of his trial told the story of a case that has played out in the national media for the past month.

Hitt’s eight-page motion said that Cummins and Thompson drove across nine states before they found a remote cabin to stay in near Cecilville, about 68 miles southwest of Yreka, in Siskiyou County. Along the way, Cummins switched out the license plates on his car with stolen ones, changed his appearance and monitored the media on the road to what he hoped would be a getaway to Mexico.

The prosecutor called it “an audacious scheme to take a juvenile victim across the United States while evading law enforcement for the purpose of engaging in criminal sexual conduct.” Ultimately, Hitt wrote, “he wanted to take the victim south of the border to Mexico and beyond for his own purposes.”

“In furtherance of this plan, the defendant procured a small watercraft and conducted a test run to cross into Mexico across the water from San Diego,” Hitt said. “The defendant also considered the feasibility of a land crossing into Mexico.”

Judge Newman agreed with the request by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to keep Cummins detained without bail. Cummins is facing a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, up to life, if he is convicted.

At the brief court hearing Monday, Cummins nodded affirmatively when the judge asked him if he was aware of his rights. Federal Public Defender Benjamin Galloway told the judge that Cummins wants to fight the case immediately in Nashville rather than contest the proceedings initially in Sacramento.

In asking Newman to set bail, Galloway said the charges against Cummins “do not involve force or coercion,” that the alleged victim left Tennessee with him “on her own free will.” Galloway added that Cummins has no criminal history and that he surrendered to Siskiyou County authorities without incident.

“He is looking forward to return to Tennessee as soon as possible,” Galloway said.

Hitt, however, called Cummins’ pursuit of Thomas “persistent” and planned out over a considerable period of time. “Indeed, from the moment the defendant was suspected of his improper relationship in early 2017, he began plotting his escape with the juvenile victim,” Hitt wrote.

Weeks before he and the girl left Tennessee to spark what became a nationwide manhunt, Cummins was observed on Jan. 23 by another student at the Culleoka Unit School, where he taught, kissing Thomas, according to a federal complaint sworn out by Columbia, Tenn., police Detective Jonathan R. Hardison.

The student who reported the kissing said she confronted Cummins. According to the complaint, “Cummins rambled on and on” to the student “about his how much he loved his wife, but indicated that VICTIM sometimes went to church with him and his wife and that VICTIM had a troubled past.”

Detectives interviewed Thomas on Jan. 31, and she told them she had a “verbal exchange” with another teacher at the school before she went to Cummins’ classroom, the complaint said. Thomas said that Cummins “must have been consoling her” when the student who said she witnessed the kiss walked in on them, according to the complaint.

Cummins denied kissing the girl when detectives questioned him the next day.

School officials suspended Cummins on Feb. 6 after he was observed on the school’s surveillance system being alone with the girl in his classroom for a half-hour – two days after he’d been confronted by police, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, Cummins left town on March 13, leaving his wife a note saying he was going to Virginia Beach, Va., or the Washington, D.C., area “to clear his head.” He had taken out a $4,500 loan the previous week, his wife told investigators.

Cummins’ wife said that before he left town, he had picked up a Cialis prescription “to treat erectile dysfunction and prolong sexual performance,” the complaint said.

Thomas’ father reported her missing the same day of Cummins’ departure.

Cummins and Thomas used aliases, stuck to back roads and got rid of “known cellular telephones,” according to Hitt.

Super 8 motel records showed that Cummins stayed for a while in Oklahoma City and Guymon, Okla., the federal complaint said.

Siskiyou County sheriff’s Capt. Karl Houtman said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee on Monday that Cummins and Thomas drove to Berkeley before heading north. While they were in the Bay Area, the two heard about the Black Bear Commune in Siskiyou County, between Cecilville and Forks of Salmon.

“I think he did go there and speak with some people, but then wound up going back to Cecilville,” Houtman said.

The sheriff’s captain described Cecilville as an area of a few hundred people that is “off the grid: no electricity, no cellphone coverage, no landlines, as far as phones go.”

Houtman said that Cummins made contact with a local man named Griffin Barry and arranged to do some work for him “moving rocks, to get money and fuel.”

Barry, however, had seen on the national news that an Amber Alert had been issued for a man driving a car like the Nissan Rogue that Cummins was driving. It was Barry, Houtman said, who called the Sheriff’s Department April 19.

Siskiyou County authorities arrested Cummins the next day without incident.

Hitt said in his court papers that Cummins admitted to investigators that he knew he was wanted for improper sexual behavior and that he fled due to the likelihood that he was going to be criminally charged.

The girl cooperated with authorities, Houtman said, and she flew back to Tennessee with the FBI.

The federal complaint says Cummins and the girl “are involved in a sexual relationship and traveled in interstate commerce to continue their relationship and to engage in unlawful sexual activity.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo