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tv   2020  ABC  June 2, 2017 2:42am-3:43am PDT

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>> and then the deserted cabin where they were finally found. >> this is where they stayed. >> was it kidnapping or mind control? >> it's fun and games until you have to step in the car and drive away from your family. >> this was manipulation. not a fairy tale, this is a case of kidnapping. >> good evening. i'm elizabeth vargas. >> and i'm david muir. tonight th latest on the after math of that terrifying journey. the high school teacher tad cummins, is being indicted and one charge carries a life in prison. >> and elizabeth is trying to stitch her life back together. here is eva pilgrim who has been covering the story since the first amber alert after things went from classroom to captive. >> reporter: tonight we are heading to rural culleoka, tennessee, where this
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strange and heart-wrenching story begins. >> it's the dimple of the universe. >> reporter: once known for its booming cantaloupe crop, it's not cattle that keeps them alive. tucked in the lush green of these rolling hills, you'll find a post office, gas station and not much else. >> the school's always been the heartbeat of the community. >> reporter: culleoka unit school, a sprawling two-story complex, which will become the epicenter of a seismic scandal. it's known for its drill team and the musical theater troupe. ♪ boogie fever >> reporter: but it's drama that quickly circles the new girl in class, 15-year-old elizabeth thomas. >> those kids are from a small community and any outsider becomes a target immediately. >> reporter: she had been home schooled her whole life. >> she was somewhat of a tomboy, she played really rough.
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she could switch to being really nice and sweet. >> reporter: paige griffith is a kind of surrogate mom to elizabeth. her daughter erin is elizabeth's best friend. >> she'd come over to my house and we would talk and watch tv, and eat junk food, and we just hung out together. >> reporter: that's erin and elizabeth play-fighting in the back of a car. the pair loved to goof around. >> no, i wasn't! >> she was always a social butterfly, been described to some people as being a diva. >> reporter: for the first time her sister sarah shows me elizabeth's room. now a kind of museum of an adolescent caught between two ages. that's her xbox? on the one hand, the teen who bought herself an xbox with money from her afterschool job. >> she just stayed up playing games. she was obsessed with guns and stuff. >> reporter: on the other, a child. >> she made this. >> reporter: still enchanted by princesses and ponies. was she pretty excited about this?
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>> she loved the bed covers that she just got. >> reporter: and still clinging to her security blanket. >> this is her baby blanket. she takes it to school with her. >> reporter: like everyday? >> yes. she has it in her backpack and cuddles with it. >> reporter: she cuddles with it because the smiles in home movies like this mask her hidden reality. instead of home schooling she was allegedly getting harsh lessons from the school of hard knocks. >> growing up, my mom abused us. it was a whole lot of things she did. a few times to where she would beat our heads up against the dressers. >> reporter: elizabeth's siblings say they all suffered for years, culminating with their mother kimberly thomas hitting one of them with a two-by-four. >> after watching all this abuse we couldn't stand it anymore. >> reporter: the kids alert child protective services on their own. authorities later remove their mother from the home. she is currently facing five
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counts of child abuse and neglect. she denies the charges, telling a local tv station -- >> i'm not guilty of those. >> reporter: how did you find out what was going on at home? >> there's two sheriff's deputies in my yard, and two case workers. >> reporter: their father anthony thomas, often working around the clock as an exterminator to support his five young children, insists he didn't know how bad things had gotten at home. it's hard for you to talk about, isn't it? >> yeah. >> reporter: you don't like to think about what was happening. >> i need to take a break. >> reporter: their mother's removal is a welcome relief. but almost immediately elizabeth is pushed into the teenage piranha pool known as high school. the ultimate outsider, she is bullied early and often. >> i mean, there's always cliques and she didn't fit in anywhere. >> reporter: what were they making fun of her about? >> they were calling her names.
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they were making fun of the way she dressed, her hair. no one would be her friend. so she was miserable. >> reporter: but elizabeth eventually found one person she thought she could trust. >> she had no one in that school to talk to except for this teacher. >> reporter: a popular and friendly science teacher, tad cummins. >> and that is how hot dogs are made. >> reporter: who would end up impacting her life more than anyone would have expected or wanted. >> she was in his class, health. and he began to help her make this transition from home school to public school. >> reporter: 50-year-old tad cummins is quite the charmer, maury county district attorney brent cooper went to high school with him. >> kind of funny, kind of a cut-up, pretty outgoing guy. >> reporter: you knew him. you saw him around. >> he and jill, his wife, they were high school sweethearts and married the year they graduated high school. >> reporter: and they've been together ever since.
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30-plus years. jill says cummins lived by the tenets of faith, family and fellowship. >> god is the center of our marriage and our life, and our faith is the most important thing to us, and i think it was to him too and it still is. >> reporter: cummins had even done mission work in the rainforests of panama. now he volunteers at his church teaching sunday school, singing in the choir, chaperoning and preaching to teens. >> we did jail ministries and a boot camp ministry, me and him singing together to the people at the jail. >> reporter: what was it like growing up with him? >> he was your all-american dad. the epitome of protector, hero, dad. >> mm-hmm. no matter what we were going through, he was the one you could call and he would fix it. >> reporter: tad cummins flourishes in the classroom. watch this youtube video of him teaching how to perform cpr.
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>> you see the difference. i'm actually taking weight off of it. >> reporter: did he enjoy teaching? >> he loved it. he said he never had a job he enjoyed more. >> he was the cool teacher. like, everybody loved him. he was everyone's friend, everyone's mentor, helped so many people through so many things. >> reporter: and for elizabeth, he's an the encouraging adult role model. >> everything that she need, he was there. he had bought a microwave and put it in his room so she could heat up food and eat her lunch in his room. >> reporter: his kindness even extended outside the classroom, taking elizabeth to church on sundays with his wife. why did he decide to take her to church with you? >> our preacher's wife was going to be talking about abuse and how to get past it, get over it. we decided to invite beth because she had also a past. we were helping her, i thought. >> reporter: did you ever think anything of their interactions together? >> it was like a father-daughter relationship.
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it's the way i saw it too, in fact, i called her our third daughter sometimes. >> reporter: but elizabeth wasn't his first special student. next, the girl who made tad cummins croon. ♪ you're the kind of woman a man could love for the rest of his life ♪ >> reporter: he sang that song to you? >> students would make jokes about us being in love. >> reporter: stay with us.
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"20/20" continues. once again, eva pilgrim. >> reporter: churchgoing family man tad cummins seemed like a model citizen. but look closer and you'll find some cracks in that happy facade. >> tad was kind of a bully about things. >> reporter: chandler anderson worked with cummins back when cummins worked as a respiratory therapist at a local hospital. >> he would say things like, "you're stupid. you shouldn't be in the e.r." >> reporter: in front of other people. >> oh, yeah, in front of other people. i have seen tad be told "no" previously. and i've see the rage and anger he gets. >> reporter: he doesn't take "no" well. >> no, absolutely.
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>> reporter: anderson says cummins had a problem with authority. he didn't have enough of it. he says that's why cummins switched careers and took a big pay cut. >> if money's not the central issue and feeding your ego is, that's what he chose. that's why he became a teacher. who tells a teacher "no"? certainly not students. >> reporter: cummins' hold on some students was particularly strong. destany parrish, now 20, was in cummins' class back in 2011. >> it was literally like a best friend that you'd known your entire life, or like a family member that you'd confide in. >> reporter: like elizabeth, destany struggled to fit in. he made you feel normal. >> and safe and protected and i didn't have anything to worry about. >> reporter: they shared a love of music. an aspiring singer/songwriter, cummins once broke out in song for destany in the music room. she recorded the performance.
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♪ you're the kind of woman a man could love for the rest of his life ♪ >> reporter: was the health teacher showing her his heart? >> i think he probably meant it the way, when he was singing it. >> reporter: he sang that song to you, on purpose, you think? >> i think. i'm not sure, obviously. >> reporter: did the other students think something weird was going on between the two of you? >> some of the students would make jokes about us being in love or whatever. i kind of blew it off, like, "no, it's just me and tad. we're friends." >> reporter: destany moved away before graduating and says nothing inappropriate ever happened between them. but a few years later, cummins found another student to shower with special attention, elizabeth thomas. >> she had no friends. i think that's one of the reasons tad cummings was able to move in on her so quick. >> reporter: jason whatley is the thomas family's attorney. do you think he targeted her? >> no doubt. >> reporter: he sought her out? >> no doubt. he was specifically grooming this child for a very specific purpose, and that was a relationship. he chose a girl that was clearly
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having issues, because she went to him for, quote, unquote, "counseling." she was the perfect victim. >> reporter: as part of the seduction, cummins portrayed himself an international man of mystery. >> apparently he told a lot of tales about his fictional background. he's a cia operative. he's an fbi agent. he's a millionaire. >> reporter: anthony thomas says his daughter was impressed with cummins' alleged exploits. >> and i said, "you're telling me he's been in these fbi and the cia." "oh, yeah. oh, tad has got a bunch of money. actually a couple million dollars in the bank." >> reporter: still, thomas didn't object when cummins took elizabeth to church. former fbi agent brad garrett is an abc news consultant. >> the idea that he would bring elizabeth to this church doesn't surprise me one bit because he needs a cover story. look at this, i'm bringing you to church with my family. isn't this a wonderful thing? >> reporter: despite outward
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appearances, authorities say cummins' intentions become less of the spirit and more of the flesh. d.a. brent cooper says investigators discovered a special system cummins devised to exchange secret messages with elizabeth using the same e-mail account. what was kind of the nature of those messages? >> things that only people that were in an intimate relationship would share. there was a message that says, "i saw you standing by your backpack and just wanted to tell you, you have a really nice blank." >> reporter: it appears the two were much less inhibited on instagram. cummins posts, "you're all my heart ever talks about. it was love at first sight, at last sight." and elizabeth, "i look forward to going to school just to see you. i love you." and she told her friend erin she had big news about a relationship. >> she said she really liked this guy, she really loved him, she really wanted to be around this guy all the time, 24/7. >> reporter: that carelessness made the situation highly
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combustible. and on january 23rd, it all blew up when a middle school student reported seeing cummins and elizabeth kissing in his classroom. >> this was an honors student who saw them kissing. >> reporter: that 12-year-old honors student later described the kiss to detectives as "a romantic peck rather than father-daughter type." the school, and eventually local cops investigate. elizabeth denies everything. >> i said, "why is the sheriff's deputy calling me about an incident at school?" she said, "oh, yeah. oh, yeah, some girl lied. it's nothing. nothing happened." >> she told me that she had gotten in trouble at school because her teacher was calming her from a panic attack. and some girl walked in and saw it and told everybody that they were kissing. >> reporter: cummins continues the cover-up. on february 1st, in an interview with detectives, he describes the relationship as "that of a father figure at school."
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and denied ever kissing elizabeth. a few days later cummins is suspended. how did he explain it to you? >> that, he was, it was either someone telling a lie, or thought they saw something that they didn't, and that it absolutely did not happen. i had no reason not to believe him. 31 years of marriage, you know, with no problems, why would you not believe him? >> reporter: for many it was hard to believe. and the already bullied teen now marked with a scarlet letter of sorts. >> there were things being said that were extremely hurtful. >> reporter: elizabeth's father told whatley elizabeth faced ridicule and had been called a whore. meanwhile cummins, now in exile from the school, begins acting strangely at home. >> he always made the coffee the night before he would go to bed. he started telling me how to make the coffee. i was like, why are you telling me this? why are you telling me how to make the coffee?
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and i was in tears because i thought he was afraid he was going to go to jail. >> reporter: he was planning to go somewhere. apparently the teacher had convinced himself, and his favorite student, that there was only one way out. with each other. on the open road. >> he worked on her, he manipulated her, and he did this until finally, she was just a girl that would do whatever he wanted. >> reporter: up next, exclusive video as elizabeth thomas walks out of her front door and into the unknown.
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i'm a journalist. -i am a singer. a businesswoman. -i am an artist. an educator. -a sister. an advocate. -a leader. a queen. -i am a friend. i am... i am one of more than a million people living with hiv in the u.s. we are not alone.
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and now, "20/20" continues. >> reporter: it's monday morning in columbia, tennessee. the beginning of the work week for most. the beginning of a new life for tad cummins. "a beautiful day to start," he posts on instagram. the 50-year-old tells his wife he has a job interview and needs
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to borrow her nissan rogue, but the disgraced teacher is about to go rogue in more ways than one. he took your car. >> he did. he switched vehicles with me on the day that he left, because he was going out of town, not far, but far enough that where he didn't want to take the jeep so he took the rogue and he never came back. >> reporter: across town, that same morning, sister sarah says elizabeth was agitated. she kept on saying, "you need to wake up," and i'm like, "what?" and she was like, "if i'm not back by six, call the cops." >> reporter: elizabeth is not yet of the age of consent. her state of mind and her true feelings about cummins are still a matter of dispute, but this much we know. in video obtained exclusively by "20/20," we see a friend pull up to the thomas house in the morning hours. a few minutes later, elizabeth emerges carrying what looks like an overnight bag and a backpack. it will be more than a month before her family sees her again.
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at 7:45 that friend drops elizabeth off at a shoney's restaurant. 8:32 a.m., cummins' silver nissan suv fills up at a shell station neighboring that shoney's. six minutes later, it pulls out. soon elizabeth is in the car with cummins and to date there is no evidence he physically coerced her. but would elizabeth willingly leave behind her family and that security blanket she holds so dear? >> she loved it. >> reporter: medication and makeup still sitting on her dresser at home. >> it's an abduction either way you look at it. you can either abduct by grabbing someone out of their house at night by force or you can abduct over time. >> reporter: that evening tad's wife comes home from work to find an empty house and a note from her husband telling her he needed to "clear his head," claiming he's headed to either virginia beach or d.c. he promises to return and makes an unusual request. asking her not to contact police. >> i was just in total shock
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when i read it. i just didn't know what to think. >> reporter: did you realize all of a sudden that he had been lying about everything, or -- >> at that moment, then i, i knew that it was all a lie. >> reporter: when elizabeth fails to return by 6:00, sarah senses something is wrong. >> i started feeling really guilty. i felt like it was my responsibility to take care of my sister, and i didn't take care of my sister. >> reporter: after hours of driving around searching, anthony thomas calls the sheriff and immediately points the finger at cummins. >> i said, "you guys need to hunt down tad cummins and see if he's in town. see where he is." >> reporter: easier said than done. when cummins breaks his promise to return home, jill breaks her silence. she tells cops he took two handguns and $4,500 from a loan he got a week earlier. jill also say her husband
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refilled a prescription for cialis before leaving town. shortly after that, an arrest warrant is issued and tad cummins is officially a wanted man. but tad cummins got what he wanted. he's got the girl and some separation. he's been gone for nearly a day before cops figure out what's going on. >> an amber alert issued for mary katherine elizabeth thomas. >> reporter: the only possible lead, a cell phone ping from elizabeth's phone around 3:30 monday in decatur, alabama. and a disturbing update. her instagram profile changed adding wife. >> i was a little bit sick when i saw that. >> reporter: amber alerts go out in tennessee and alabama. on day five, wife jill holds a press conference to try to reason with her husband. >> your family wants their poppy back. please do the right thing and turn yourself in to the police and bring beth home.
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>> reporter: cummins might not have watched his wife's televised plea, but millions can't stop watching. the small town teacher's case goes national. the tennessee bureau of investigation works to retrace cummins' steps in the days before he vanished, releasing this security video from a local tennessee walmart. cummins casually strolls the aisles, making repeated visits to one. the hair color aisle. >> we have a little bit of knowledge about where they were at the beginning of their journey and then it's really been kind of a cold trail. >> reporter: meanwhile, investigators keep working, looking through tad cummins' computer, discovering an unsettling search history that included googling how to marry a teen bride and looking up the age of consent. >> we've been able to develop a consistent pattern of behavior on cummins' behalf that indicates he planned this for some time before disappearing with elizabeth. >> they're putting up the green
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ribbons all over town. we've had prayer vigils where people have come. >> reporter: chandler anderson shows his support with a different kind of green. >> we're hoping that $10,000 will get someone to talk or tell us where elizabeth is. someone knows where she is. >> reporter: just as many are losing hope, a break in the case. >> big news, a confirmed sighting of tad cummins and elizabeth thomas in oklahoma city. >> a tip leads investigators to an oklahoma city walmart to recover this security footage. recorded two weeks earlier, it provides the first images of the two since they disappeared. tad cummins' hair and goatee now appear dark brown and elizabeth's hair darkened red. they buy some food and pay with cash. >> he's very smart. i knew he would try to change his appearance. >> reporter: in nebraska, another possible sighting. the local police post these
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security images from a mcdonald's onto their facebook page, but quickly discover it was one of many false leads. a month of no direction, no contact. somehow this high school teacher with no priors is proving as elusive as a master criminal. >> he's not a stupid person. he's a smart man. >> reporter: and he still has the support of his family. >> no matter where you are, daddy, no matter what you've done, we just want you to come home. we miss you so much. >> reporter: you still sort of defend him? >> i do. i find myself defending him. >> reporter: why? after what he did to you? not only did he betray your marriage, he thrust your whole family -- >> i know. unbelievable. >> reporter: while the lights continue to burn bright for elizabeth's safe return, tad cummins has other ideas and other places to hide. >> we honestly just don't know. they're a bit of a needle in a haystack right now, so to speak. >> they could be anywhere. >> reporter: stay with us.
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and now, "20/20" continues. once again, eva pilgrim.
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>> reporter: you can't understand this story, or this country, without grasping the allure of the american road. the freedom, the control, the ability to put your whole past in your rearview mirror. this was tad cummins' sell to elizabeth thomas, who was clearly open to suggestion, just days before she'd posted on instagram, "i want to leave, go away, far away." we know that tad cummins and elizabeth thomas drove out of tennessee with their bags packed for warmer weather. he had shorts and t-shirts, she had her bathing suit, she left her makeup behind. they headed south, then west, often evading authorities by sticking to the back roads. as their pictures spread in media across the country, they make that stop in oklahoma city, the first we know of, where investigators say they checked in to this super 8 motel. staff here telling investigators cummins asked for directions to the local walmart.
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that slip-up gave authorities the lead they needed to pull the store security video. >> fugitives, particularly if they haven't been fugitives before, are fairly unsophisticated and they make mistakes. >> reporter: we learned that cummins made that mistake here at the super 8, using his real name, even giving the motel his real i.d., before checking in to room 114. this is what a single bed room looks like at this super 8. here in oklahoma city. newly renovated, new linens, with a microwave and a refrigerator. all a far cry from where they would end up once tad cummins' money runs out. hotel staff say the two spent most of their time in their room, keeping to themselves. so you think his biggest trouble is going to be keeping her in line, on his side, under control. >> yes, keeping her in a place
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where she doesn't either want to run from him, call somebody, text somebody. maybe he said, "look, you're in as much as trouble as i am. your life will be awful if you go back there. you have to stay with me." >> reporter: throughout their journey, authorities say, cummins tries to cover his tracks, avoiding credit cards in favor of cash, switching out stolen plates twice, disabling his car's gps system, and even throwing out their cell phones to keep from being tracked. now, remember, tad cummins had a history south of the border. 20 years earlier he'd traveled to the rainforests of panama on a church medical mission trip. now, in need of a hiding place off the grid, it could be an ideal destination. did you ever hear him talking about being off the grid? >> well, we used to watch tv shows together about that sort of thing. >> i'm going to show you what it takes to get out alive of some
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of the most dangerous places. >> and, you know, i never would in a million years would i have dreamed that he would be doing that. >> reporter: since elizabeth had no passport, cummins couldn't take her by land and would have to take her by sea. how? authorities say cummins wanted to go by boat from here in san diego down to mexico. from there they could continue on to panama. >> it would be more like a movie stunt. that's not for real life. >> reporter: bryan zulka is the owner and captain of el gato sport fishing. is it easy to take a boat from here into mexico? >> no, it's not. you have to have the right boat, you have to have the right weather, you have to have the right skills and navigation, otherwise you're not going to make it. >> reporter: and we've just learned from investigators that cummins didn't get a motorboat. just a humble man-powered kayak. that might be fine in this tranquil channel, but once he'd hit the mouth of the ocean -- >> as you can see we're coming out here, these are good waves. this is easy a 4-to-8-foot swell real close together.
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>> reporter: no shock, cummins ab aband abandoned his mexico plans. instead he pursued another plan. we don't know the precise route, but cummins and his teenage passenger ended up in berkeley, california. and here they learn of a remote commune on the northern edge of the state. believe it or not, there are still places in this country where people live completely disconnected from society. this is one of them. the black bear ranch, the focus of the documentary "commune." >> my slogan at the time was free land for three people. >> reporter: since 1968 it's been a place to shed both your clothing, and the inhibitions of life, if you can overcome the obstacles of getting there. we start the trip with fog and rain. paved highways soon turn into narrow dirt roads. the final gasp of civilization, this gas station in tiny cecilville. i'm eva. >> i'm griffin. >> reporter: here we found griffin barry, who says he met
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tad cummins on day 26 of his journey. you felt bad for him? >> yeah. >> reporter: you helped him out? >> yeah, yeah. i put $15 in his tank, you know? he was looking for black bear. he said he heard about it. >> reporter: were they lost? >> it could be a hard place to find. >> reporter: he wasn't kidding. so, we are trying to get to black bear ranch, we've been driving for 2 1/2 hours. no cell phone signal, very spotty gps, we thought we were close, but now it's impassable so we are going to have to turn around and try to find a different way to get there. we finally find ourselves at black bear ranch, where we definitely get the story we came for. those are chickens up there. >> yeah, chickens and ducks. >> reporter: the reclusive residents made us shoot this video on an older model iphone, and they had to vote before letting us use it. our host, april showers, gives us a tour.
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the commune's fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years. today, there are only a handful of members left. most shaken by the recent events. >> several weeks ago this couple arrived and they failed to identify their true selves and identities. >> reporter: cummins and elizabeth used the fake names of john and joanna, and told everyone they were 44 and 24 years old. the residents here had no reason to suspect anything different. >> we're an off-the-grid homesteading community. we don't have any television, radio, cell phone, internet. there's no newspaper delivery or other contact with the outside world besides what comes in and out of the driveway. >> reporter: they took the pair in, giving them a bed here in the main house, and sharing their food. but while tad cummins has left so much behind him, one thing he hasn't shed is his hot temper. so they didn't fit in here very well? >> no, they didn't fit in here very well. he brought that into our sacred
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space, this terrible behavior and acting on wrong impulse and a perverted instinct, i would say. >> reporter: the couple openly defying the commune's work rules, instead staying in bed all day. tad insisted on carrying around a pocket knife for protection. how did they leave? >> it was a unanimous decision. we didn't want them here at all and we had to ask them to leave. he was very uncomfortable, tad cummins, and he got very angry and almost blew a gasket, i would say, but he left without hurting anyone or damaging property. >> reporter: when we return, after 3,000 miles on the run through nine states, an unlikely hero comes to elizabeth's rescue. >> he's one of the best people in the world. >> reporter: stay with us.
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♪ if you grow up here, you really can be anything. sutter health. proudly caring for northern california, birthplace of pioneers.
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>> once again, "20/20." >> reporter: it's now 36 days into their flight from tennessee. tad cummins and elizabeth thomas have spent the last week and a half living in the remote black bear commune. now they suddenly find themselves cast out of paradise. >> the idea that she has been gone a month and hasn't gone sideways on him would just shock me, which really concerns me because in cases like this where people become desperate, they do desperate things. >> reporter: that desperation apparently forces cummins to let his guard down, reaching out to others for help. returning to the nearby village
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of cecilville, they find griffin barry, that good samaritan who'd given them money and directions a week earlier. did you remember them? >> no, i couldn't remember his name. i was like, "what's your name again?" but i was like, "i'll help you out." i put him in the cabin. >> reporter: can you show us the cabin that you put him in? >> yeah, for sure. it's at the end. >> reporter: cut off from the world, griffin is completely unaware of the nationwide manhunt for the couple he was helping out. did he say if they wanted to be by themselves or -- >> yeah, he was, you know, of course he told me they want to be left alone. >> reporter: so this is where they stayed. and those bottles? the wood cabin is unfinished, and has no heat or insulation. it does little to keep out the cold. so that's what they were using to have clean water? to make some extra money, griffin put them to work collecting river rocks for a masonry project. so they were hungry? >> yeah. the girl got excited when i gave
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them some food. >> reporter: and her, you didn't really get to talk to her a whole lot? >> when i was trying to strike up a conversation -- i picked them up in the morning. i was like, "what's your name?" and she was like, "joanna," and then it was almost with like an accent. >> reporter: the quiet girl and weird accent seem odd, so strange that griffin tells a neighbor nearby. something seems off. >> i was like, that girl won't talk, you know, to me really or anything. >> reporter: that night, the neighbor makes a startling discovery, finding this amber alert, and warns griffin that one of his new friends may actually be a wanted fugitive. >> i mean, i saw a photo of the guy and i was like, that's definitely him. >> reporter: then what did you guys decide to do? >> you know, we went and called the police. >> reporter: overnight, a s.w.a.t. team assembles outside the tiny cabin. there they wait for cummins to emerge. >> there were people everywhere.
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they were hidden. >> knowing that cummins is armed with two guns, authorities lay a trap to lure him out. the plan, griffin barry is supposed to pick them up for another day of hard labor. >> i yelled a little bit, like, hey, hey! i guess that's what ended up waking them up. >> reporter: the police pounce on cummins, and in an instant, the month-lodge search is over. the news spreads quickly back east. >> i get a text from the tbi that said we've got her. >> reporter: when you saw that text -- >> wow, i think the world stopped and went backwards a couple of degrees. >> reporter: less than 24 hours later elizabeth tearfully reunites with her family. >> i actually got out of the vehicle and ran to where she was. it was just amazing to finally get to see her. it was really great to have her tell me that she loves me. >> reporter: i know you were worried she wouldn't want to see you. >> i went to tears of course.
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i think tad had told her too, she can't go home, your dad is going to be mad at you. >> reporter: still, in some ways this 15-year-old girl has changed, both inside -- >> sometimes she'll be happy and laughing, and sometimes she'll be sometimes in a fetal position crying. >> reporter: -- and out. >> she has lost a lot of weight. she said they were eating flowers. >> reporter: in tennessee, locals are thrilled with the news of elizabeth's rescue, but her family is furious at the school, convinced they missed a chance to prevent the abduction in the first place. >> well, the kissing incident happened on the 23rd of january. the investigation into the incident started on the 24th. on the 27th, they went on a field trip together. >> reporter: and how many chaperones were there? >> we understand there just to be one, tad cummins. >> reporter: elizabeth's father didn't hear about the kissing incident until more than a week after, cummins still teaching at
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school. elizabeth removed from his class, but the two finding a way to be together. do you feel like the people at the school should have had a better eye on what was going on? >> absolutely. yeah. i mean, yes. did the school drop the ball? that's an understatement, in my opinion. >> reporter: the superintendent has said that they followed all policies and procedures but has created a task force to strengthen policies. before school, we try to get answers from principal penny love. can you just tell us why you didn't call authorities right away when you found out about the tad cummins incident? do you have any comment? she may have taken her time alerting police in elizabeth's case but certainly didn't hesitate to call when we approached with a question. as for tad cummins' wife jill, some question whether she could have done more.
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they see that you knew her, that you interacted with them, and they say, how did she not know something was up? >> i think a lot of people didn't know. no one knew. he was friendly with, with everyone. i mean, a caring person. >> reporter: so you never suspected anything? >> no. >> reporter: not once? >> no. >> reporter: when we return, the souvenirs elizabeth collected on the way. were they clues?
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>> reporter: just days ago, griffin barry, that good samaritan who helped elizabeth, flew to columbia, tennessee, to pick up his reward, a $10,000 check. >> he brought our family back together. he's a hero in my book. >> reporter: meanwhile, tad cummins has been charged with transporting a minor with the intent to engage in sexual activity across state lines. his lawyer told abc news cummins' actions involved no "force, threats or coercion," and "the alleged victim left of her own free will." this was not a "kidnapping." as for his wife jill, whose marriage was left in shambles -- >> he betrayed my trust to the point that i -- it's totally broken.
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>> reporter: it's not surprising that she just filed for divorce. elizabeth is now being treated at a mental health facility, but there is one more revealing fact about her time on the road. with little money to spend, elizabeth collected the cheapest souvenir of all. roadside rocks like this, from some of their stops along the way, labeling each with the location where she picked it up. perhaps a sign that she had always hoped to return home. >> she kept one especially for me and she said the fbi took them all. just the thought that she got one for me. >> reporter: that she was still thinking about you. >> yes, it made me very happy. >> the father clearly so happy that his gaugter is back. she has been in a treatment center for trauma victims. >> and the school district is creating a protocol about reporting abuse. experts showing teachers and students the warning science. >> thanks so much for watching.
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from all of us here at "20/20" and abc news, good night.
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