SISKIYOU COUNTY, Calif. -- A 50-year-old Tennessee teacher who vanished last month with a teen student is under arrest in Northern California, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Tad Cummins and 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas were reported missing on March 13 from Columbia, Tenn.. Thomas is safe, according to the TBI.
The disappearance came after Cummins was investigated by the school system when another student reported seeing the married teacher kiss Thomas at the Culleoka Unit School. Culleoka is a community about 60 miles south of Nashville near the Alabama state line.
Investigators tracked nearly 1,500 tips from all 50 states. The last confirmed sighting of the pair was two days after their disappearance at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart. Officials said the surveillance images captured showed Cummins had altered his hair to appear darker and Thomas may have changed her hair color to red.
Officials have said Cummins left a note for his wife before disappearing, but they think it was a diversion to mislead the investigation. Court papers filed recently in the girl’s disappearance say she was afraid of the teacher and thought she would face repercussions at school if she resisted him.
Police had issued an Amber alert for Thomas and say they have warrants charging Cummins with sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping. A federal prosecutor said Thursday Cummins will also face a federal charge of transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse.
CBS affiliate WVLT reports the pair were found near the Shasta-Trinity National Forest after the teacher’s car was located Wednesday in night Siskiyou County, a remote area of Northern California nearly 2,500 miles away from where the teen disappeared.
A tipster called authorities to report the Nissan Rogue had been spotted in Cecilville, reports CBS affiliate KTVL. The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office responded and found the car had no license plates, but matched it to Cummins by running the VIN number, the station reports.
Cummins and Thomas were found near a cabin a short distance away, according to the TBI. TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said authorities had initially described the residence as a commune, but said that was based on preliminary information and is incorrect. He said the tipster believed the pair had taken up residence in the cabin about a week and a half ago.
Cummins was taken into custody without incident around 9 a.m. Thursday. Investigators had placed the car under surveillance and felt confident Cummins and Thomas were at the residence, according to the TBI.
“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,” TBI Director Mark Gywn said in a statement released to KTVL. “We’re also grateful for the public’s support and vigilance throughout this search effort.”
Tennessee District Attorney General Brent Cooper said Thomas is healthy and unharmed, but “our main concern is how she is emotionally and mentally.”
“At the end of the day, she’s 15 years old,” Cooper said. “He needs to be held accountable for kidnapping this girl.”
Thomas’ father told local media he is overjoyed that his daughter has been found safe.
The father tells WSMV-TV that his daughter is probably going to be hungry and that he can’t wait to tell her that he loves her. He said Thursday he didn’t want to talk about Cummins.
S. Jason Whatley, an attorney for Thomas’s family, said the family has not yet spoken to the teen but was expecting a phone call from her “at any moment.”
“They’re anxious, they’re elated, they’ve got this mixture of feelings,” Whatley said. “They’re very anxious to speak to her and hear first hand how she’s doing – at the same time there’s this sense of elation that really can’t be described.”
Whatley said he was surprised that it was Cummins’ car that tipped off law enforcement to their location.
“Many thought the Nissan Rogue was long gone, but there it was,” he said.
The teen was expected to be flown back to Tennessee on a TBI aircraft on Friday, Whatley said. He said the family was thankful to law enforcement and the media.
“Elizabeth would not be coming home today but for the efforts of the Nashville and local media,” Whatley said. “A tip was given to the TBI last night because of the media. The family is so grateful beyond words.”
He said the family trusts that justice will come for Cummins and want to focus on their daughter.
Thursday, Cummins was in the custody of the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department without bond, awaiting extradition proceedings.