A former Tennessee teacher accused of kidnapping his 15-year-old student was arrested in Northern California on Thursday after authorities found them in an isolated cabin in Siskiyou County, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The girl was safe, and their discovery put an end to a five-week nationwide search that included Amber alerts in Tennessee and Alabama, a sighting in Oklahoma City and more than 1,500 tips.
Tad Cummins, 50, was wanted on allegations of sexual conduct with a minor and has been accused of kidnapping 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas. Cummins was listed on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's 10 Most Wanted list.
Elizabeth had been missing since March 13.
"We couldn't be happier to tell you she will soon be on her way to Tennessee," Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn said in a news conference Thursday. Gwyn said authorities "mobilized a nation" during the search, "and when you do that, something good most likely is going to happen because you can't hide from that many millions of people looking for you."
Cummins and Elizabeth had been staying for several days in a cabin near Cecilville, in a "very remote, isolated area with no or limited cellphone service" and snow on the ground, said Josh DeVine, a TBI spokesman. A citizen who spotted them contacted Siskiyou County authorities and called a TBI tip line Wednesday night.
Sheriff's deputies in rural Siskiyou County, which borders Oregon, found Cummins' silver 2015 Nissan Rogue on Wednesday night near Cecilville, authorities said. The vehicle's license plate had been removed, and it was determined to be Cummins' car by its vehicle identification number, a dispatcher for the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
The car was parked near the cabin on Eddy Gulch Road, in a mountainous area, according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office.
Authorities kept the vehicle under surveillance throughout the night; they arrested Cummins and recovered the girl without incident on Thursday morning, according to the Sheriff's Office. Deputies found two loaded handguns in the cabin.
Cummins was taken to the Siskiyou County Jail in Yreka and booked on a Maury County, Tenn., fugitive arrest warrant for aggravated kidnapping, according to the Sheriff's Office. Federal and Tennessee authorities were en route to the area Thursday, and Cummins remained in custody in California, awaiting extradition to Tennessee, authorities said.
Gwyn said Elizabeth would be flown back to Tennessee on a TBI aircraft and that Cummins would face a set of state and federal charges "that could keep him behind bars for many years."
"At the end of the day, she's 15 years old," Gwyn said. "She's a young girl with a grown man that's 50 years old. … He needs to be held accountable."
Cummins will be charged with aggravated kidnapping in addition to charges stemming from an inappropriate touching incident at the school, said Brent Cooper, the district attorney for Maury County, Tenn.
Jack Smith, the acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, said his office on Thursday filed federal charges of transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse. The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, Smith said.
Cummins formerly taught at the Culleoka Unit School in Culleoka, Tenn., where Elizabeth was a student, the Tennessean reported. He was fired from the school after authorities began investigating him for an alleged sexual interaction with the girl at the school, where she was a freshman, according to the TBI.
The TBI said in a statement last month that "investigative efforts have revealed a troubling pattern of behavior by Tad Cummins, suggesting the 50-year-old 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."
Elizabeth was last seen the morning of March 13 at a Shoney's restaurant in Columbia, Tenn., after being dropped off by a friend. Her parents reported her missing later that day. Investigators placed her as being 80 miles south, in Decatur, Ala., later that day.
Surveillance footage showed Cummins and the girl at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma City on March 15, the Tennessean reported. Cummins used cash to purchase food items, and they both appeared to have dyed hair.
Authorities said Cummins appeared to have planned the abduction in advance.
Three days before Elizabeth disappeared, Cummins looked for information online about his Nissan "in an effort to determine if certain features could be tracked by law enforcement," according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. A few days before that, he did an online search about teenage marriage, authorities said.
In a news conference last month, Cummins' wife, Jill, said: "Tad, this is not you. This is not who you are. … Your family wants their poppy back. Please do the right thing and turn yourself in to the police and bring Beth home." Jill Cummins has since filed for divorce, after 31 years of marriage, according to the Tennessean.
3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the arrest from the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office.
2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with information from a news conference.
11:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about the kidnapping.