A federal judge has sentenced a married Tennessee teacher who went on the run for weeks with a 15-year-old student to 20 years in prison after his victim confronted him in court.
Tad Cummins, 52, pleaded guilty in April of 2018 to obstructing justice and taking a minor across state lines for sex.
Prosecutors said Cummins took advantage of a vulnerable girl with a history of abuse and neglect when he cultivated a sexual relationship with her, in a sentencing memorandum filed on Monday which asked for a sentence of 30 years.
The teenage victim, Elizabeth Thomas, who is now 17, told authorities she and Cummins had sex ‘every day as they traveled from state to state,’ over 38 days between March 13 and April 20 of 2017, the Tennessean reported.
‘When I started school, you picked me out of the crowd. I was just a kid who wanted to make friends, but you were someone who had a plan,’ Thomas said in court during her victim impact statement, according to Radar Online.
‘You saw a broken girl who was lonely, scared, and traumatized. You made her feel safe and loved because you saw what she needed and made her believe you would be her “protector.”‘
Thomas previously revealed in an interview with ABC’s 20/20 that she felt like she had to go with Cummins or he would do something drastic, and that he kept a gun in the car’s console during their cross-country drive and she knew she couldn’t escape.
Cummins’ two-decade punishment was handed down on Wednesday by US District Judge Aleta Trauger in Nashville.
A federal judge has sentenced Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins, 52, who went on the run for weeks with a 15-year-old student, to 20 years in prison. Cummins is pictured at right in a booking photo released by the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office on April 20, 2017. Victim Elizabeth Thomas, now 17, is pictured at left
Thomas’ victim impact statement demonstrated how much trauma she’s dealt with, following months of grooming and assault at the hands of Cummins.
‘You act like you care now and that you’re full of all this regret, but where was any of that before?’ Thomas asked in court, according to the statement obtained through Burton Staggs of the Tennessee River Valley News.
‘Where was any of that when you first had me alone in your classroom closet and violated me over and over again for months? Where was any of that when you spent untold amounts of time and effort into manipulating, pressuring and deceiving me into thinking that you were the only person that cared about me?’
Thomas went on: ‘All you were was a man who wanted sex, and you manipulated me and used me just for that.
‘But the truth is, no matter how much time you have to serve, you will never be able to undo what you did to me. I will have to live with the scars you left on me forever.’
Cummins first pleaded not guilty to the charges against him in May of 2017, but changed his plea without entering into a deal with prosecutors ‘after case review, consultation, and personal reflection,’ federal public defender Dumaka Shabazz wrote in a court filing.
In a letter to his wife, Jill, written from behind bars on July 31, 2017, Cummins wrote: ‘I am the one to blame for everything,’ while adding that ‘the devil was deeply involved.’
Cummins met the teen when she was a student at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee.
Cummins (left) met Thomas (right) when she was a student at Culleoka Unit School in Maury County, Tennessee. Cummins’ wife of 30 years, Jill Cummins, has previously said she came to think of Thomas as her third daughter, and she believed her relationship with her husband was akin to that of a parent and child
In a letter to his wife, Jill (left), written from behind bars on July 31, 2017, Cummins (right) wrote: ‘I am the one to blame for everything,’ while adding that ‘the devil was deeply involved’
On March 13, Thomas was reported missing on the same day tat Cummins left a note for his wife telling her not to call the police, and saying that he need to leave town to clear his head
Thomas told ABC that Cummins and his wife of 30 years took her under their wing after her mother, Kimberly, was charged with child abuse and neglect involving the teen and her sister, Sarah.
Jill Cummins has previously said she came to think of Elizabeth as her third daughter, and she believed her relationship with her husband was akin to that of a parent and child.
But things took a strange turn one day in the school cafeteria when Elizabeth says Cummins, who was a teacher at her high school, made an unsettling comment to her.
‘I was standing there with a few friends… and then they said, “Are you hungry?” And I went, “I don’t have a soul or if I did, I’d be hungry,” or something like that,’ Thomas said.
‘And then he came to me and he pointed at me and said, “My soul sees your soul.”‘
Nevertheless, Thomas says Cummins made her feel like no one else cared for her the way he did. He also prevented her from seeking mental health assistance.
‘I was feeling real low, and I was wanting to get on anti-depressants and try to go to a therapist. And he told me no and not to do it ’cause it’d change who I was,’ she recalled.
Thomas revealed that she and her married mentor began exchanging sexually explicit messages on Instagram, and then one day in class he told her, ‘you’d look pretty nice naked,’ she said.
There were no other students present at the time.
She also described the first time Cummins kissed her which, she said, was when she ‘realized it was getting too far.’
‘He grabbed my face. I was right next to the double doors I had. I was 15. Being home schooled I haven’t really had a boyfriend,’ she said.
‘When that happened, it was kind of like, “wow.”‘
It’s believed that Cummins had sex with Thomas in the closet of his classroom before being his suspended.
Cummins is said to have convinced Thomas to leave with him and destroyed both of their phones so their whereabouts could not be traced as they made their way to a remote cabin near Cecilville, California. Cummins (left) and Thomas (right) are pictured while on the run, captured on surveillance camera footage at a Walmart in 2017
Despite knowing their relationship was taboo, the teenager said she never told anyone because she doesn’t like attention.
‘I was scared, I don’t want to tell my parent that a grown man kissed me and I don’t want to tell friends that a grown man kissed me.
‘I don’t like the spotlight being on me,’ she said.
Thomas also said she was afraid to make Cummins angry.
‘He doesn’t take “no” well,’ she said in the interview.
The two went on the run after Cummins was suspended from the school on February 6, 2017, after a 12-year-old student reported seeing Cummins kiss the teenager on January 23 of that year.
During his suspension, Cummins would force the teen to call and text him at regular intervals, Thomas said.
‘And any time that I wouldn’t post for a few hours, he would go crazy and say that I was cheating on him and saying if he found out that I was with another boy, he’d kill them,’ Thomas said.
Thomas also said that she felt like she had to go with Cummins or he would do something drastic, that he kept a gun in the car’s console, and she knew she couldn’t escape
Eventually, Thomas says Cummins told her she had to run away with him, or else he would kill himself or someone else, including her family.
Thomas said the teacher had two guns and he would threaten her with them.
Feeling trapped, Thomas said she reluctantly agreed to go with Cummins for fear that he would do something drastic if she didn’t.
On March 13, Thomas was reported missing on the same day that Cummins left a note for his wife telling her not to call the police, and saying that he need to leave town to clear his head.
Cummins is said to have convinced Thomas to leave with him and destroyed both of their phones so their whereabouts could not be traced as they made their way to a remote cabin near Cecilville, California.
‘As soon as we went to go leave, he set a gun in the middle console, and I knew that I wasn’t getting out of the car,’ Thomas said. ‘He made me throw my phone off a bridge and his phone as well, that way the police couldn’t track us.’
Thomas likened the ordeal to a kidnapping and described in detail Cummins’ controlling behavior, which included keeping her by his side at all times, even when she went to use the bathroom or shower, and telling her what to eat.
‘He told me he likes skinny girls,’ she said, adding that she often went hungry.
In the days after he fled with the teenager, they were seen on surveillance cameras going into a Walmart where they bought hair dye to change Elizabeth’s appearance.
They also bought cheese cubes, K-Y jelly, women’s razors and chocolate.
He later bought a two-seater kayak, allegedly for a failed plan to escape to Panama, and an iPad to try to monitor the media coverage of their case, prosecutors said.
When they would stay in motels, Thomas says Cummins made her sleep naked next to him and would keep her clothes separately so she could not leave.
‘He was really mean and said hurtful things a lot of the time,’ she said of Cummins. ‘He called me his wife sometimes and said that we were going to get married and I was going to live with him until I died.’
Prosecutors noted in filings that Cummins had no plans to end his sexual relationship with the teen before he was caught with her at the cabin (pictured) and arrested on April 20, 2017
Prosecutors noted in filings that Cummins had no plans to end his sexual relationship with the teen before he was caught with her at the cabin and arrested on April 20, 2017.
Authorities were alerted to their presence at the cabin by a neighbor who became suspicious when she saw the car being driven by Cummins without a license plate and noticed the very young-looking Thomas inside the vehicle, the Tennessean reported at the time of Cummins’ arrest.
The two were said to have been at the cabin for one week before Siskiyou County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Cummins.
‘We are all stoked she was found,’ property owner Michael ‘Monk’ O’Hare, who wasn’t on site while Cummins and Thomas stayed there, said at the time.
‘We’re a pretty tight small-knit community that’s hours from the nearest police department. We police our own community with diligence. Neighbors, friends and community members.’
In unsuccessfully arguing for the minimum sentence of 10 years, Cummins’ legal team noted he had no previous criminal history.
His lawyers also said that if Cummins had not left the state with his victim, he would likely have faced a sentence of only 2-4 years in prison.
Thomas (right) is now engaged to Skylar Dirla (left), who graduated high school last year. The two began dating in March, and Dirla asked Thomas to marry him in September. This photo of the proposal was obtained by DailyMailTV
A civil lawsuit is also pending against Cummins and Maury County Public Schools, brought by Thomas’s father.
The lawsuit alleges the school district ignored signs Cummins had an inappropriate relationship with Thomas.
Thomas is now engaged to Skylar Dirla, who graduated high school last year. The two began dating in March, and Dirla asked Thomas to marry him in September, with photos of the proposal obtained by DailyMailTV.
The two fell in love while working together at a seafood restaurant in their hometown of Columbia, Tennessee.
A civil lawsuit is also pending against Cummins and Maury County Public Schools, brought by Thomas’s father, alleging the school district ignored signs Cummins had an inappropriate relationship with Thomas. Thomas (right) is pictured with fiance Dirla (left)