true crime

Elizabeth Thomas was kidnapped by her teacher when she was 15. She's still being blamed for it.

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of child sexual abuse that may be distressing to some readers.

In 2017, a nationwide manhunt in America took place, and images of a 15-year-old girl were splashed across newsrooms, TV bulletins and newspapers. It was the face of Elizabeth Thomas

A high school student, Thomas had experienced a troubled and allegedly abusive home environment growing up. After being home-schooled for the majority of her life, she then started high school in 2017, aged just 15.

While at the school, she came into contact with a health science teacher, Tad Cummins. The grooming was practically instantaneous. And soon the abuse began.

Watch: Elizabeth Thomas recounts how the ordeal started. Post continues below.

Video via ABC News.

"He'd just be staring at me all during class. He was always eyeballing me, looking at me, sitting at our table. There was one time where he told me that I'd 'look nice naked'. I realised this is getting too far," she recounted to ABC's 20/20.

In January 2017, Cummins was spotted kissing 15-year-old Thomas on the lips on school grounds. 

Confronted with what was then an alleged sighting, both Thomas and Cummins denied it. But when another teacher observed that the two seemed to be spending too much time together, Thomas was barred from Cummins' class.


Thomas said she felt scared to tell people the truth, fearing repercussions for her and anger from Cummins.

Soon after being barred from being near Thomas, the pair were seen in Cummins' classroom in February. Three days later the teacher was suspended without pay.

But during his suspension, Cummins would force the teen to call and text him at regular intervals. Then he coerced Thomas into 'running away' with him on March 13, 2017. In reality, he had kidnapped her. 

"I didn't want anyone to know, I was scared of what would really happen if they knew. I didn't want to make him mad or make him come after me. He said if he couldn't have me, he would [die by suicide]," Thomas said.

"Anytime he threatened himself he threatened my family too. He threatened to shoot himself or use the guns."

While they were driving across state lines in the US from Tennessee, Thomas says Cummins would keep a gun in the car's console and show it to her. She took it as a direct threat and an effort on his part to control her.

Elizabeth Thomas around the time she was kidnapped. Image: Supplied/Police. 


Soon after Thomas disappeared from her home, her family raised the alarm.

Her abduction generated national headlines. But in much of the coverage, it was suggested the student had 'run away' with her teacher and the pair had a 'relationship'. They neglected to recognise the power imbalance, the fact she was underage, and the coercive control and abuse at play.

While evading police, Cummins dumped both his phone and Thomas', and they made their way to a remote cabin in California.

Thomas later testified that Cummins sexually abused her every single day during that ordeal - and there were 38 days in total between March 13 and April 20 of 2017.

But authorities were soon alerted to the pair's presence at the cabin by a neighbour. He had a gut feeling something wasn't right when he saw the car being driven by Cummins without a license plate, and noticed the very young-looking Thomas inside the vehicle.


"I had remembered this news story about a younger girl running off with an older man," the neighbour said. "I googled it, and it certainly looked like the guy."

Whenever the duo interacted with people during those horror 38 days, Thomas never spoke a word, terrified.

She said when police finally found her and her captor at the cabin, it was "the best day of my life".

"He said not to tell them [police] that we had done anything. He said to tell them I had went willingly, and that he was trying to protect me," she told ABC News.

Cummins was subsequently arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of engaging in criminal sexual conduct.

In January 2019, Cummins was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Upon his release from prison, Cummins will be required to register as a sex offender.

This FBI poster was released when Thomas went missing. Image: Supplied/Police.


Reflecting on what she endured and what Cummins did to her, Thomas said in her victim impact statement that he took advantage of her vulnerability.

"You were someone who had a plan. You saw a broken girl, who was lonely, scared, and traumatised. You made her feel safe and loved because you saw what she needed, and made her believe you would be her 'protector'," she said.

"Your choices were yours and yours alone. A girl should not have to tell a 52-year-old man this, but choices have consequences. Your choices destroyed not just my family, but also yours."

This year Thomas - who is now 22 - has had her story made into a movie. Lifetime's Abducted By My Teacher: The Elizabeth Thomas Story will be released this month. It is executive produced by fellow kidnapping survivor and activist Elizabeth Smart, who says Thomas is a powerful advocate. 


But despite all she has gone through, Thomas shared this week with E! News that she is still blamed by some members of the public for what happened to her.

"I'm still facing backlash. Little snippets, like with the movie's premiere, there was a lot of backlash in this community. But I don't look at the comments. If it doesn't have to do with helping other people, I don't try to give them any power," she said.

Along with helping other survivors, Thomas said she hopes to see the victim-blaming mentality shift so no other victim-survivor has to endure the scrutiny she did.

"I used to be scared to go into stores. I used to not want to leave my house, close the blinds, you know, have someone else go grocery shopping for me - and I don't do that anymore," Thomas shared.

"I'm tired of hiding. The fear of the community bashing me, they've done it for so long and I've just kind of hid in my own little corner. I'm tired of letting those people get to me, and I want other people to see that I'm not scared of them."

If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

Feature Image: ABC News 20/20.

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