Tad Cummins and his student Elizabeth Thomas disappeared March 13
New charge is filed against teacher
After five weeks on the run, a Tennessee teacher who kidnapped and fled with his 15-year-old student was arrested Thursday deep in the mountains of northern California, authorities said.
“I’m glad this is over,” 50-year-old Tad Cummins said after his arrest, according to Siskiyou County sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Gilley.
Elizabeth Thomas was found safe in a remote cabin in Cecilville, northwest of Redding. The pair spent one night in the cabin before the arrest, but they may have been in the area for about a week, Gilley said.
The cabin’s caretaker alerted law enforcement to their presence and helped them hatch a plan to draw Cummins from the residence unarmed and without Thomas, the cabin’s owner told CNN.
The arrest ends a nationwide manhunt that began on March 13, when Cummins fled with Elizabeth from their small town of Culleoka, Tennessee. Cummins face federal and state charges stemming from her disappearance.
But the search for answers is far from over.
“There aren’t words in the English language to describe the level of relief and elation experienced by the Thomas family,” said Jason Whatley, attorney for the family. “Now begins another hard chapter, but for now, we celebrate.”
Alert residents assist capture
The pair disappeared as a police investigation into their relationship was heating up. Cummins had been suspended after a student reported seeing them kissing in a classroom.
Surveillance video showed the pair at a Walmart in Oklahoma City on March 15. But after that, the trail went cold.
The break came when someone encountered Cummins in Siskiyou County, more than 2,000 miles from Culleoka, and called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation tip line.
The caller said Cummins had taken up residence in Cecilville, about two hours from the nearest police station. Siskiyou County deputies searched the area and found a silver Nissan Rogue parked outside the cabin, TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said. They confirmed through the VIN number that it belonged to Cummins.
The TBI earlier had said the two were found in a commune, but later backed off that description. The cabin is close to a commune called Black Bear Ranch but it’s not part of the commune, said the cabin’s owner, Monk O’Hare. He was not on the property when the pair was there.
The cabin’s caretaker spoke to the couple, O’Hare said. He added that a friend of his was also at the property and saw the couple.
The friend told him something didn’t seem right, O’Hare said. Cummins told O’Hare’s friend that he was 44 years old, the young woman with him was 22 and they were recently married. He added that when Thomas wanted to share something she would whisper stuff in Cummins ear and then Cummins would repeat it.
Their vehicle did not have license plates and he noticed that the young woman would not get out of the car when the man got out. The property caretaker called the sheriff’s department and helped them devise a plan to capture Cummins, O’Hare said,
That next morning, the caretaker asked Cummins to come outside and help him build a rock wall on the property. When Cummins went outside, investigators were there to arrest him, O’Hare said.
Gilley confirmed that his team worked with a neighbor to draw Cummins out of the cabin in order to separate him from Elizabeth. Snipers surrounded the cabin as Cummins exited the cabin and was taken into custody. Elizabeth was walking behind him and was detained.
He described her condition as alternating between “stoic” and “emotional,” understandable given the circumstances, he said.
“It was a very traumatic experience for her. Her mood was very alternating,” he said. “The two obviously have a relationship … her response to us and to law enforcement escalated up and down.”
‘It only takes one tip’
Elizabeth is in federal custody and arrangements are being made for her return home as soon as Friday. As of Thursday evening, her family was waiting to communicate with her before speaking publicly.
The main concern is for her emotional well-being, TBI Director Mark Gwyn said.
“As we have said from the start, it only takes one tip,” Gwyn said. “This is yet another example of the value of the public helping us to rescue a kidnapping victim.”
After the capture, Cummins was charged with one federal count of transportations of a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse, said Jack Smith, acting US attorney for Middle District of Tennessee. The charge carries a minimum of 10 years.
He faces state charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, the TBI said last month.
But state law allows children older than 12 to decide whether to leave their families, unless their removal or confinement “is accomplished by force, threat or fraud.”
That means to prove a kidnapping took place, prosecutors will have to show Elizabeth was unlawfully removed or had her freedom restricted.
Estranged wife speaks out
Cummins’ estranged wife, Jill Cummins, was “very emotional” when she learned both were found safe, her attorney, Michael Cox, said.
“She is excited that they were found and nobody was hurt,” Cox said. “She has not spoken to Tad.”
Jill Cummins had filed for divorce, saying she felt betrayed by her husband. She had no idea why her husband went to northern California.
“This is not somewhere they had frequently visited,” her attorney said. “I’m not aware that they had ever been there.”
CNN’s Sara Sidner reported and wrote from Yreka, California. CNN’s Holly Yan and Emanuella Grinberg wrote from Atlanta. Journalist Burt Staggs, CNN’s AnneClaire Stapleton, Roxanne Garcia, Natisha Lance, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Artemis Moshtaghian and HLN’s Mike Galanos contributed to this report.