Missing Tenn. student Elizabeth Thomas found, former teacher arrested in California

( ABC NEWS) -- Former Tennessee teacher Tad Cummins, who is accused of kidnapping his 15-year-old student, has been arrested in northern California after more than a month on the run, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The student, Elizabeth Thomas, has been rescued, officials said.

Authorities from Siskiyou County found them at a commune in Cecilville early Thursday morning. Cummins surrendered without incident and Elizabeth was safely recovered by law enforcement officers, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Efforts to reunite Elizabeth with her family remain ongoing.

“Our intelligence analysts and agents have worked tirelessly since issuing this AMBER Alert to process more than 1,500 leads from all 50 states,” Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director Mark Gwyn said in a statement. “What happened in California this morning, however, proves it only takes one person to lead to a successful end. We are extremely thankful the hard work of all partners in this search has paid off. We’re also grateful for the public’s support and vigilance throughout this search effort.”

The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department confirmed to ABC News that it had located Cummins' Nissan Rogue. Siskiyou County is in the northernmost part of California and located near the Oregon border.

Cummins, 50, was wanted on allegations of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor. The former teacher was also added to Tennessee’s 10 most wanted list. An AMBER Alert had been issued for Elizabeth.

An attorney for the Thomas family told ABC News that the commune where authorities found the pair is nestled in a remote, snow-covered area some two hours from the sheriff's office. The teen was unharmed, the attorney said.

Elizabeth has been missing since Cummins allegedly kidnapped her on March 13. A day after they disappeared, he was fired from his teaching job at Culleoka Unit School, where Elizabeth had been a student in his forensics class.

Cummins, a married father and grandfather, researched teen marriage online, specifically the age of consent, just eight days before he allegedly took Elizabeth. Three days before the alleged kidnapping, Cummins did an online search about his car “to determine if certain features could be tracked by law enforcement,” according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“He was certainly putting a lot of planning into disappearing,” Brent Cooper, the district attorney for Maury County, Tennessee, told ABC News in an interview earlier this month. “He searched what size mattress will fit in the back of a Nissan Rogue.”

Investigators have discovered email draft messages between Elizabeth and Cummins, which authorities said show a romantic relationship between them. According to authorities, after one of them would write a message, he or she would save the message as a draft, and the other person would log on, read the message and delete it.

One of Elizabeth's schoolmates reported seeing her and Cummins kiss in his classroom on Jan. 23, according to a school district investigative report, but both denied the claim. A school report from January reads that neither one "admitted to behaving inappropriately towards the other."

Gwyn, the TBI director, said earlier this month, "This is not a fairy tale. This is a case of kidnapping."

Investigators obtained images from surveillance cameras at a Walmart in Oklahoma City showing Cummins and Elizabeth on the afternoon of March 15, two days after he allegedly abducted her. But there had been no other credible sightings.

The surveillance images showed Cummins “with an altered appearance to darken his hair” and indicated that “Elizabeth may currently have red hair,” according to the TBI.

The surveillance footage showed them entering the store together, where Cummins used cash to buy food. He didn’t buy “anything else of significance,” the TBI said.

At the time, investigators were still trying to determine what vehicle they were traveling in.

Last week, the Maury County district attorney told ABC News that Cummins is on medication to control his blood pressure and should need a refill. Pharmacists were asked to be on alert for customers who look like Cummins or Thomas.

Cooper also told ABC News that Cummins left a note for his wife the morning he vanished. Cooper didn't provide details on what was in the note, but said it appeared to have been a diversion to throw investigators off the trail.

A lawyer for Cummins' wife, Jill Cummins, said she has filed for divorce after 31 years of marriage.

"Jill will attempt to move forward with her life," attorney Michael Cox said in a statement provided to ABC News on March 31. "Jill continues to pray for the safe return of Elizabeth Thomas and for a peaceful resolution to this ordeal."

 

© 2017 ABC News


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