Former teacher Tad Cummins pleads not guilty in federal case
Tad Cummins, a former Columbia teacher charged with fleeing the state with one of his students, has pleaded not guilty in the case.
Cummins entered the plea in a court filing and waived his appearance for an arraignment hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday. It’s common for defendants to plead not guilty early in a case.
The 50-year-old was charged earlier this month with obstruction of justice and transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of engaging in criminal sexual conduct. The 15-year-old girl, Elizabeth Thomas, was Cummins’ former student.
Cummins and the girl were found in northern California, in a remote forest cabin, on April 20, weeks after they disappeared. The girl was safe and returned to her family.
If found guilty in the case, Cummins could face a minimum prison term of 10 years.
Earlier this month, an FBI agent testified that the teacher
told authorities he had sex with the girl most nights during the 38 days he was on the run with her.
The 50-year-old married teacher, who is a father and grandfather, said the sexual relationship with the girl began the first night after they disappeared March 13, FBI Agent Utley Noble said during testimony at a detention hearing in a federal court in Nashville.
They decided to call themselves John and Joanne Castro and tell people they were married, and he was 40 and she 24, the FBI agent testified. In the days before he left with the girl, Noble said, Cummins had actually looked up teen marriage and age of consent on the internet.
Testimony at the detention and preliminary hearing showed that Cummins spent $1,500 on a two-seat kayak, and he and the student used it to try to get to Mexico. They tried to kayak from San Diego to Mexico, but the waters were too treacherous, Noble said, and they decided it was too risky going into Mexico on foot. Cummins decided to use the name Castro because it was a Hispanic name and he thought they would be better off portraying themselves as having that heritage if they were going south of the border.
Cummins, a respiratory therapist by training, was a mentor to students at the Culleoka Unit School and kids would often go to him with their problems, the FBI agent said. Culleoka is a community about 60 miles south of Nashville near the Alabama line. He would tell students he had been in the FBI, the CIA and the military and “had the ability to get lost,” Noble said.
The female student had been a victim of bullying at school, as well as physical and verbal abuse at home and she was afraid for her safety at both home and school, Noble testified. The girl, he said, thought of Cummins as a mentor she could turn to.
A lawyer for Cummins repeatedly asked the FBI agent if there was any evidence the girl was held against her will at any time on the trip from Columbia, Tenn., to California. The agent said there was no evidence.