NASHVILLE — All was quiet in the 100 block of Haven Drive on Wednesday afternoon, save for the sounds of birds chirping and wind, occasionally pulling on the rope in the front yard swing of the Cummins residence.
Earlier a Maury County sheriff’s deputy had come and gone. In a few minutes, a Columbia Police officer would arrive home to the neighborhood, and a child getting off a school bus would walk a block to his house.
This stillness was just for a moment, said Freda Scott, who lives next door to Tad and Jill Cummins. Scott answered the door cautiously in her robe. For days, strangers have been knocking on doors in the neighborhood — law enforcement and reporters.
Scott said she understands all the activity.
“Nobody knows why he did it.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been on a multistate manhunt for Tad Cummins, 50, a Culleoka Unit School health science teacher. An arrest warrant has been issued for Cummins on an aggravated kidnapping charge. He’s accused of taking his third-period student Elizabeth Thomas, 15, on March 13.
Thomas’ disappearance comes over a month after a student reported seeing Cummins and Thomas kiss. A timeline and report on the school’s investigation released Tuesday followed the actions that led to Cummins' suspension and eventual termination on the same day the two went missing.
TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said Thomas may be in grave danger, and Cummins is believed to be carrying two handguns and hiding with Thomas. Multiple sightings have been reported, most recently Thursday in Texas, but he remains at large.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Scott said. “He was the nicest man. He’d walk down the street here in the neighborhood and say hello and invite people to his church. He and his wife would take that girl to church. His poor wife is devastated.”
Scott looked over at the black manual-drive Jeep in the Cumminses' driveway in disdain.
“He took the car,” Scott said. “And she (Cummins' wife) can’t even drive a stick.”
These words by Cummins’ neighbor and public records paint a picture of Cummins as a man who has spent the past decade surrounded by children in leadership roles on the job and in church ministry positions, including a stint as interim youth pastor at Grace Church of the Nazarene in Columbia.
He often served as an adult chaperone for youth activities.
Now, after Cummins' wife pleaded for him to come home last week as a district attorney announced new charges against him, some remain quiet and others have begun to distance themselves from the teacher who once had a shining record.
'A second career'
In July 2011, a position came open for a health science teacher at Culleoka Unit School.
It was a technical track position for an occupational educator who had worked in the field. Experience was prized over a four-year degree. On his teaching application, he detailed that teaching was something he always wanted to do.
So when Cummins applied for the position, the school and Cummins thought they'd found the perfect match, even if it meant Cummins' second career was a long time coming.
"I have often thought that I would love to be a teacher, and just might excel at it, but it never seemed to be my destiny," Cummins wrote in his job application. "When this opportunity presented itself I recalled that one of my favorite teachers came to teaching as a second career. That helped me to believe that I can, too."
But this wasn't the first time Cummins had reinvented himself.
Originally from Mount Pleasant, Cummins graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1984. He held a series of quick-turn jobs through his 20s, most lasting about a year. He was a dialysis machine technician, an office manager at a gas service, a plant employee at a sponge factory, a car salesman and, finally, a parts manager at an automotive store, until the spring of 1991, when Cummins enrolled in Columbia State Community College to study respiratory therapy.
Cummins excelled in the program, graduating magna cum laude in 1993.
Cummins' first job out of school was at then-Baptist Hospital in Nashville, where he worked from March 1993 to April 1994.
Then in April 1994, Cummins started as a respiratory therapy supervisor at Maury Regional Hospital in Columbia. Leaving in July 2003, it was the longest stay of his working career.
His resume emphasizes his supervisory role beyond respiratory therapy, but in July 2003, he left his administrative role at the hospital to become a freelance respiratory therapist for much of the next decade, working with a staffing agency for placement to fill vacancies.
With this work history, as well as gleaming recommendations, the school was enamored.
On an evaluation sheet of his resume, references and experience, the principal who interviewed him gave Cummins the highest mark in every area: "excellent," "outstanding," "dedicated" and "well-suited."
His work references all gave him high ratings as well.
Outside of work, Cummins described an eclectic life of music interests and church volunteering.
He described himself as a devoted Christian who worked at Grace Church of the Nazarene in Columbia, serving in several capacities, from audio engineering to preaching, playing music and leading Bible studies.
One area of ministry Cummins highlighted in his teaching application was his involvement in a ministry called "Grace Unlimited," in which he was involved in worship services and mentoring at the Maury County Jail and at Magnolia Academy, a wilderness boot camp for teen boys in trouble.
All was not perfect. Cummins filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1999 and had a more than $12,000 judgment filed against him in Maury County in 2012 by Beneficial Tennessee Inc., but records show Cummins has no criminal history.
Cummins' teacher license record shows he’s never been suspended or had his license revoked, according to the state’s teacher licensure database, and prior to Culleoka Unit School's recent investigation into the report that he kissed Thomas, Cummins' personnel file shows no reprimands.
However, the district reported Cummins in February to the state board for insubordination with a recommendation to suspend him as a result of continued contact with Thomas. Cummins’ license has been flagged for review by the Tennessee State Board of Education, the agency that handles license revocations. Cummins has held a professional occupational educators license since 2014 in health science. To obtain the license, educators need one year’s work in the field in the past five years and an associate degree.
Back in his neighborhood, on Wednesday, Freda Scott just shook her head.
"It looks like he just up and did this out of the blue," she said.
On the same day, Grace Church of the Nazarene responded to a request for comment, saying Cummins had not attended there since 2013 and had not worked with youth at the church since March 2003.
A receptionist at Destiny Church in Columbia, where Cummins has recently attended, said the church did not want to comment.
Contributing: Natalie Alund and Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean
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