There were few signs of them during their 38 days on the run, but now that former Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins has been arrested and charged with running off with a teenaged girl, the FBI has pieced together details of their movements across the county.
Cummins, dressed in striped prison garb, appeared before a federal judge in Nashville on Friday. Authorities say Cummins manipulated the 15-year-old girl into leaving with him. An Amber Alert was issued, drawing national attention to the case before a citizen's tip led law enforcement agents to the pair in California.
Cummins is charged with transporting a minor across state lines to engage in criminal sexual conduct. If convicted, he would have to serve at least 10 years behind bars.
The hearing provided the first detailed day-by-day account of the cross-country trip that began March 13, when Cummins picked the girl up from a Shoney’s restaurant in Columbia, Tenn.
FBI special agent Utley Noble testified about the sequence of events, culled from their investigation, store videos, motel receipts and Cummins' interviews with law enforcement.
The plan to flee
The week before, Cummins had met with the girl at the restaurant parking lot to plan their departure.
Cummins had also visited websites about teenage marriages, searched for mattresses that would fit inside his Nissan Rogue and watched a YouTube video on how to dismantle a car GPS system.
On the day he left, he cleaned out a lockbox in his home of $4,500 and two guns and left his wife a note saying he was heading to Virginia Beach or maybe Washington, D.C., to “clear my mind of this crap.” Cummins was being investigated at the time for inappropriate behavior with his former student.
After picking her up up at the Shoney’s parking lot on March 13, Cummins drove south on Interstate 65 and headed to Decatur, Ala., where they both threw their cell phones into the Tennessee River.
Cummins dismantled his in-car GPS system and replaced his license plate with an Alabama tag taken from an abandoned car. He then drove the pair to Birmingham before spending their first night in Mississippi.
New identities out West
From Mississippi, Cummins headed northwest to Oklahoma City for the night, where the pair were caught on surveillance video at a Walmart, although authorities would not see the video until two weeks later. They spent two nights in Oklahoma at Super 8 motels before reaching Colorado, where they spent another two nights.
In Cortez, Colo., Cummins bought a tablet from Walmart to be able to view news coverage about Thomas’ disappearance.
It’s in Colorado that Cummins decided on pseudonyms and new identities for the pair. They become a married couple, 40-year-old John and 24-year-old Joanne Castro. Cummins told investigators he chose a Spanish-sounding name because he planned to go to Mexico.
Heading west, they spend three or four nights in Utah, a night in Nevada and then landed in San Diego where Cummins purchased a $1,500 two-seater kayak to boat into Mexico.
But those plans went awry when they tested the kayak in Coronado Bay and found it too treacherous.
It was there that the pair had their first contact with an unidentified local law enforcement officer whom they spoke to about boating in the area, and who kept watch for them when they returned.
“According to Cummins, he was worried about their safety,” Noble said.
Cummins decided against heading to Mexico by land, saying the political environment made it “too hot.” Instead they drove to “Slab City” in southern California where Cummins slept with his gun because he was concerned about their safety.
Tipster identifies Cummins and teen
They then drove north, stopping in Los Angeles to sell the kayak at a bar. By the time they reached Cecilville in northern California, Cummins was running out of money.
They acquired a “friend” named Griffin who gave them some money and gasoline.
Griffin Barry would later be instrumental — and rewarded — in Cummins' capture, but when he first met Cummins and the girl, he did not know who they were.
After two weeks spent at a nearby commune, where they stayed in a cabin, the two were asked to leave. They found Barry again. By then, however, Barry had recognized Cummins and “began interacting with law enforcement.” Barry was asked to obtain the car’s vehicle identification number so police could confirm their identities.
Cummins was captured the next day and the teen was recovered safely.
The first thing Cummins said when law enforcement interviewed him was “I want to go home,” Noble said.
Cummins was initially charged April 20 with a federal crime of knowingly transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in sexual activity.
Cummins has not yet been indicted and could face additional charges.
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