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

April 20, 2017 10:40 PM
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Missing Tenn. student Elizabeth Thomas found, former teacher Tad Cummins arrested in California

Former Tennessee 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 Office in California had received a similar tip, he said.

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

Authorities from the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office 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 office.

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 after by authorities.

Cummins 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 a federal charge of transportation of a minor across state lines with intent of having criminal sexual intercourse against Cummins, said U.S. attorney Jack Smith. The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Cummins also faces charges in Siskiyou County for kidnapping and possession of stolen property, according to the sheriff's office. 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.

Efforts to reunite Elizabeth with her family remain ongoing. A TBI aircraft is on its way to California and will bring 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 had planned an escape to the northwest due to a sighting of the pair at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart along Interstate 44, which leads to California. He said that a special police unit were able to rescue Elizabeth after they "swooped in" the cabin with "force."

The family is elated that their daughter 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."

“Our intelligence analysts and agents have worked tirelessly since issuing this AMBER Alert to process more than 1,500 leads from all 50 states,” TBI 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.”

Authorities received about 1,500 tips in the search for Elizabeth, said Matt Espenshade, FBI special agent-in-charge for the Nashville bureau.

"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."

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.

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 to face charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor.

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, 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."

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.

Source: abcnews.go.com

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