Under a sun-splashed sky Wednesday morning, Elizabeth Thomas' father stood quietly staring at a sapling placed before him, its new green leaves blowing in the wind.
Shortly after, the tree was planted in honor of his missing 15-year-old daughter, who disappeared from her Columbia, Tenn. home last month. The girl, along with her former teacher Tad Cummins — a 50-year-old man wanted on an aggravating kidnapping charge in the case — remained at the center of a statewide Tennessee Amber Alert out of Maury County on Wednesday.
"We all want you home. We all need you home, " Anthony Thomas said in hopes his daughter would somehow hear his plea for a safe return.
In a move initiated by the Tennessee Board of Parole, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, the Department of Correction and the Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction, 10 trees including the one for Elizabeth Thomas, are being planted across the state this week to observe National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, established by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to promote awareness for victims’ rights and services.
Since 2009, the group has planted more than 80 trees in the state honoring victims of crime, TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland said during a tree planting ceremony at the River Walk in Columbia.
Kenneth Thompson, who along with his wife, lost their daughter to domestic violence in 2011, also spoke at the event. After the man accused of killing her was sentenced to 30 years in prison, he and his wife began sharing their story with other victims and their families in hopes of providing comfort and support.
Amber Alert: Elizabeth Thomas
"Tanya hid her abuse behind a big smile... and we buried her, " her father said adding he had no idea how the Thomas family could cope with not knowing where Elizabeth Thomas is.
Following the hour-long ceremony, Thomas' father begged his daughter to return home and for Cummins to turn himself in.
"Elizabeth, that man may be telling you that nobody is looking for you or he may even be telling you that nobody wants you home. Don't listen to that," her father said. "Everything he said... not just to you, has been a lie."
"Tad Cummins I know you're keeping up with all this and you're filtering, you're not letting her see how much people out here love her... It would make better sense for your to turn yourself in to law enforcement. If you turn yourself in there are laws that will guarantee your general safety."
Thomas disappeared March 13, and the case garnered national attention when the TBI issued an Amber Alert after investigators announced they discovered Cummins may have been abusing his role as the girl's teacher to groom her in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her.
The girl was a ninth-grader in Cummins' forensics class. Over a month before she went missing, another student witnessed what appeared to be a kiss between Thomas and Cummins and reported the incident to the school, according to a report released by Maury County Public Schools.
A timeline and report on the school’s investigation released followed the actions that led to Cummins' suspension and eventual termination on the same day the two went missing.
Since they disappeared, there has only been one credible sighting of the pair at an Oklahoma City Walmart.
According to the TBI, agents have information that placed Thomas in Decatur, Ala. early on, but it was not an actual sighting.
As of Wednesday, the TBI had received more than 1,257 tips in the case. So far none have been credible.
Thomas is described as being white with blond hair and hazel eyes, and is 5 feet tall and 120 pounds. Cummins is a 6-foot white male with brown hair and brown eyes and weighing 200 pounds.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call 1-800-TBI-FIND. If you spot Cummins' vehicle with a Tennessee license plate 976-ZPT, call 911.
Reach Natalie Neysa Alund at 615-259-8072 and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.