(CNN) — After five weeks on the run, a Tennessee teacher who kidnapped and fled with his 15-year-old student has been arrested in northern California, authorities said.
The student, Elizabeth Thomas, was found safe in Cecilville, northwest of Redding, her sister Kat Thomas said Thursday.
“There aren’t words in the English language to describe the level of relief and elation experienced by the Thomas family,” said Jason Whatley, the family’s attorney. “Now begins another hard chapter, but for now, we celebrate.”
Tad Cummins, 50, fled with Elizabeth from their small town of Culleoka, Tennessee, on March 13. They disappeared a few weeks after a student reported seeing Cummins and Elizabeth kissing in a classroom.
A tip led law enforcement to a remote cabin at Cecilville, about two hours from the nearest police station. The Nissan Rogue at the center of the search was parked outside, TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said.
After the capture, one federal charge of transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of having criminal sexual intercourse was filed against Cummins, said Jack Smith, acting US attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. The charge carries a minimum of 10 years.
A 2,000-mile escape
Surveillance video showed the pair at a Walmart in Oklahoma City on March 15. But after that, the trail went cold.
The break came when someone spotted Cummins in a remote part of Siskiyou County, California, more than 2,000 miles from Culleoka, and called the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation tip line.
The caller said he had taken up residence in a remote cabin in Cecilville, DeVine said.
Siskiyou County deputies searched the area and found the vehicle. They confirmed through the VIN number that it belonged to Cummins, Devine said.
Deputies monitored the car and took Cummins into custody as daylight broke, said DeVine.
Thomas was found “healthy and unharmed,” TBI Director Mark Gwyn said. She is federal custody and arrangements are being made for her return home as soon as Friday. The main concern is for her emotional well-being, Gwyn said.
“As we have said from the start, 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.”
Couple spotted by property caretaker
The TBI earlier had said the two were found in a commune, but later backed off that description.
The cabin’s owner, Monk O’Hare, told CNN it is not located on Black Bear Ranch, a nearby commune.
O’Hare was not on the property but the cabin’s caretaker spoke to the couple, he said. Cummins told the caretaker that he was 44 years old and that the young woman with him was 22.
O’Hare said a friend of his also was at the property and saw the couple. The friend told him something didn’t seem right, he said.
Their vehicle did not have license plates and he noticed that the young woman would not get out of the car when the man got out. O’Hare’s friend asked the property caretaker to call the sheriff’s department, he said.
The night before the arrest, “a plan was hatched” to capture Cummins, O’Hare told CNN.
That next morning, the caretaker asked Cummins to come outside and help him build a rock wall on the property. When Cummins went outside, investigators were there to arrest him, O’Hare said.
A quirk in the law
Cummins faces charges of sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, the TBI said last month.
But state law allows children older than 12 to decide whether to leave their families, unless their removal or confinement “is accomplished by force, threat or fraud.”
That means to prove a kidnapping took place, prosecutors will have to show Elizabeth was unlawfully removed or had her freedom restricted.
Estranged wife speaks out
Cummins’ estranged wife, Jill Cummins, was “very emotional” when she learned both were found safe, her attorney Michael Cox said.
“She is excited that they were found and nobody was hurt,” Cox said. “She has not spoken to Tad.”
Jill Cummins had filed for divorce, saying she felt betrayed by her husband. She had no idea why her husband went to Northern California.
“This is not somewhere they had frequently visited,” her attorney said. “I’m not aware that they had ever been there.”
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