A missing teenager and the high-school teacher accused of kidnapping her have been found alive in northern California, over 2,000 miles from the Tennessee town where they disappeared.
Tad Cummins, 50, is believed to have taken Elizabeth Thomas, 15 on March 13. Thomas was one of Cummins’s students at her Maury County, Tennessee school, where he was suspended for “inappropriate relations” with her, The Daily Beast previously reported. Two weeks later, Thomas disappeared and Cummins was charged with aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor. On Thursday, Cummins was arrested in rural Siskiyou County, California, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations announced. Thomas was found safe, investigators said.
Late Wednesday night, both the TBI and local authorities received a tip from a local man who believed to have spotted Cummins and Thomas, investigators said Thursday.
“We received a call to the TBI tip line around 11 p.m. Central last night from an individual in California who believed he may have encountered Tad Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas,” Josh DeVine, a TBI spokesperson said in a Thursday afternoon press conference. The caller "indicated they had taken up residence in a cabin in a remote area in Cecilville, California within the last week and a half. In turn, we contacted the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s office and learned that they had received the same information from the same individual."
"The area where the pair was reported to be is a very remote, isolated area with no or limited cell phone service," DeVine said, adding that there was snow on the ground in the rural area. "In spite of it all, deputies found the Nissan Rogue that’s been at the center of this six-week search early this morning."
Though someone had removed the car’s license plates, the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office was able to run the Nissan’s vehicle identification number and confirm it belonged to Cummins.
"Authorities in Siskiyou County kept this car under surveillance for several hours and as daylight broke this morning were able to take Tad Cummins into custody and safely recover Elizabeth without incident," DeVine said.
Jack Smith, the acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee said he had filed federal charges against Cummins, in addition to the earlier state charges of kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor. Cummins is now charged with transporting a minor across state lines for sex, for which he faces a minimum 10 years in prison, Smith said.
Maury County District Attorney Brett Cooper said Thomas appeared in good health. "All we know is that she’s apparently healthy and unharmed. Knowing that, our main concern is how she is emotionally and mentally," he said during the Thursday afternoon press conference. "Whatever help we can offer, we will make sure that it is provided for her."
Thomas’s family had previously gone public urging their daughter to flee Cummins. “Izzy please—get away from him, get away from him, run somewhere, tell somebody,” her father told CBS.
Investigators had not announced any credible sightings of Cummins or Thomas since the beginning of April, when they discovered surveillance footage of the pair inside a Walmart in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In the security footage, Cummins pushes a shopping cart through the store’s front entrance while Thomas walks alongside him. Cummins used cash to purchase food, but did not buy anything significant, investigators said. Both appeared to have dyed their hair darker, possibly in an attempt to conceal their identities. Surveillance footage taken from a Tennessee Walmart in the days before he disappeared showed Cummins looking at women’s hair dye.
The drive from Maury County, Tennessee to Oklahoma City—more than 650 miles away, nearly 10 hours—suggested that Cummins had driven quickly out of town in the two days after the kidnapping.
Cummins’ personnel files describes allegations of inappropriate conduct by Cummins toward Thomas when he was her teacher, including trying to kiss her, and making contact with her even after the school ordered him to stop. Until enrolling in school this year, Thomas had been homeschooled, which investigators said may have led her to be viewed as more vulnerable by a predatory adult.
“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 on his teaching application, obtained by The Daily Beast. “When this opportunity presented itself I recalled that one of my favorite teachers came to teaching as a second career. That helped me believe that I can, too."
But the only references he listed were from the medical industry.
“Honestly, I briefly knew him,” Jeff Walker said, a former colleague told The Daily Beast. “I was in sales, and he was a respiratory therapist. And it was a very brief, brief acquaintance, if you would call it that.”
He added that Cummins’s old job dealt primarily with adults, and that the school district never called to ask for a recommendation. “so there was never an opportunity to be around young people,” Walker said. “He put me as a reference, and if anyone had called, I would’ve been like, who?”
Maury County District Attorney Brett Cooper told a local ABC affiliate that Cummins had persuaded Thomas to exchange messages with him.
“They would write the message and let it save as a draft,” Cooper said. “The other person would log in, read the message and then delete it and then write another message that was saved as a draft.”
In at least one of the messages, Cummins allegedly made sexual comments about Thomas. Shortly before the kidnapping, Cummins searched for information on “teen marriage,” and whether police could track his car, investigators said of his internet history.
Prior to taking his teaching job in 2011, Cummins had no teaching experience. He had previously worked as a respiratory therapist for two decades, but described teaching as a dream job on his application.
Cummins is believed to have kidnapped Thomas from the restaurant where she worked. Thomas’s coworkers suggested that the 15-year-old feared her former teacher. Her family’s lawyer told WKRN that coworkers said Thomas hid in the bathroom when Cummins visited, and begged a coworker to tell Cummins she wasn’t working that day.
The morning of her disappearance, Thomas allegedly suggested that she was nervous about upcoming events. "She woke up her older sister and said 'Hey I'm leaving, but if I'm not back by 6:00 come looking for me,'" her sister-in-law Danielle Thomas told WHNT.
During the month-and-a-half manhunt, Cummins was believed to be carrying two handguns, investigators warned.
Cummins’s arrest warrant claims that he "may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her."
He has since been fired from the school where he was Thomas’s teacher. His wife has filed for divorce.