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

Authorities confirmed to ABC News their vehicle was found in California.

ByABC News
April 20, 2017, 11:27 PM

— -- Tennessee former teacher Tad Cummins, who is accused of kidnapping his 15-year-old student, was arrested in Northern California Thursday after more than a month on the run, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The student, Elizabeth Thomas, has been rescued, officials said, describing her as "healthy" and "unharmed."

Around 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation received a call to its tip line about a possible sighting of the duo, according to TBI public information officer Josh Devine. The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department in California had received a similar tip, he said.

Siskiyou County is in the northernmost part of California and located near the Oregon border.

Once investigators located a Nissan Rogue, they were able to confirm through its vehicle identification number that it belongs to Cummins. The car was then kept under surveillance for several hours.

Authorities from the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department found the pair at a cabin in a rural area in Cecilville early Thursday morning. Deputies set up a perimeter around the cabin and elected to wait until the morning to arrest Cummins as he exited the residence, the sheriff's department said in a press release.

As daylight broke, Cummins surrendered without incident, and Elizabeth was safely recovered by law enforcement officers, according to the TBI. Two loaded handguns were found in the cabin, according to the sheriff's department.

According to ABC affiliate KDRV, the man letting them stay there said he wasn't aware for the past 36 hours that the two were sought by authorities.

Tennessee teen Elizabeth Thomas and her former teacher, Tad Cummins, were were found in one of these two cabins pictured in rural Siskiyou County, California, on April 20, 2017.

Cummins, 50, is charged with aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor, according to Lawrence County Attorney General Brent Cooper.

The U.S. State Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Tennessee has also filed against Cummins a federal charge of transportation of a minor across state lines with intent of having criminal sexual intercourse, said U.S. Attorney Jack Smith. The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Cummins also faces charges in California's Siskiyou County for kidnapping and possession of stolen property, according to the sheriff's department. The charges are pending review by Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus.

It could take several weeks for Cummins to be extradited to Tennessee, Smith said.

Tad Cummins is pictured in a booking photo released by the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office on April 20, 2017.

Efforts to reunite Elizabeth with her family are ongoing. A TBI aircraft is on its way to California and will take Elizabeth, who is currently in FBI custody in Redding, California, home to Tennessee, authorities said.

Elizabeth is expected to board a TBI private jet bound for Tennessee Friday morning, said the attorney representing the Thomas family, Jason Whatley. Her family is "anxiously" waiting to speak with her for the first time since she went missing, Whatley said.

Whatley speculated that Cummins planned an escape to the Northwest, after a sighting of the pair at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart along Interstate 44, which leads to California. He said that members of a special police unit were able to rescue Elizabeth after they "swooped in" the cabin with "force."

Her family members are elated that she has been found, Whatley said. They will not make a media statement until they have spoken to Elizabeth.

The main concern for the teen at this point is her mental and emotional state, authorities said. Whatley said the family's priority is first to get Elizabeth back and then getting the help that she needs so she can "get on with her life."

Authorities received more than 1,500 leads from all 50 states in the search for Elizabeth, according to TBI director Mark Gwyn.

"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."

Cummins was wanted on allegations of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor and was added to Tennessee's 10 most wanted list.

According to the TBI, Cummins remained in the custody of the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department without bond on Thursday while he awaits extradition to Tennessee.

The Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department told ABC News that Cummins will be arraigned Friday.

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 in Maury County, Tennessee, 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 general for Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties in 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 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. The school report from January reads that neither one "admitted to behaving inappropriately towards the other."

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

Investigators obtained images from surveillance cameras at a Wal-Mart 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 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.

The footage also showed Cummins "with an altered appearance to darken his hair" and indicated that "Elizabeth may currently have red hair," according to the TBI.

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

Cooper told ABC News last week 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, Jill Cummins, 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.

Michael Cox, a lawyer for Jill Cummins, said she has filed for divorce, after 31 years of marriage.

"Jill will attempt to move forward with her life," 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."

ABC News' Elisabeth Bognar, William Gretsky, Michael Edison Hayden, Dee Morales, Lauren Putrino, Glenn Ruppel, Emily Shapiro, Jason Volack and Nery Ynclan contributed to this report.